For some, the changing of the leaves and cooler temperature spark joy, but for others it means shorter days, less sunlight and the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Unlike holiday blues, which many people experience during this time of year due to added stress of the season, SAD is a recurrent clinical depression linked to person’s predisposed biology. The exact cause has not been determined, but many studies suggest a correlation with reduced sunlight exposure. This is found to interfere with the body’s biological clock, which regulates mood, sleep, and hormones. Recent research, is also associating low vitamin D levels as a factor in those diagnosed.
SAD can last for several months and show up in a variety of physical and physiological symptoms including:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Desire to isolate
SAD often runs in families. You may have memories of a parent who ineffectively tried to cope during the holiday season by withdrawing, being spiteful, or abusing substances. Symptoms tend to peak in January and February. Women seem to be three times as likely as men to be affected; and it hits most prominently between the ages of 18 and 30. If you are experiencing the above symptoms, seek assistance from a mental health professional for a diagnosis.
SAD, like any form of depression, should be treated to ensure ability to enjoy your life and function at your highest ability.
The following are ways relieve the symptoms:
- Light therapy is one of the first line treatments for fall-onset SAD. A special box is used which mimics sunshine. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than regular light bulbs and provides light in different wavelengths. Typically, you sit a few feet from the light box for about 30 minutes a day. It appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. This therapy generally starts working in a few days to two weeks, and has minimal side effects. Before you purchase a light therapy box, talk with your doctor about the best one for you. Those with diagnosed bipolar disorder should consult their doctor prior to using a light box, as it may cause a manic episode.
- Psychotherapy. A professional counselor can assist you with symptoms of irritability, interpersonal difficulties, dysfunctional attitudes, social withdrawal, and negative thoughts.
- Prescription antidepressants. Sometimes antidepressants are needed to help boost mood. Those diagnosed with SAD find the addition helpful during the winter months. It’s important to recognize when the symptoms of SAD start so you can see your doctor for a prescription before the symptoms worsen.
- Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch outside, or simply sit on a bench and expose yourself to the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help. It is most effective within two hours of getting up in the morning.
- Exercise regularly. Outdoor exercise is the most helpful. If you can’t due to weather, try to workout beside a window. Exercise will also help offset the weight gain that is common with SAD.
- Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed and attend therapy appointments as scheduled.
- Take care of yourself. One of the symptoms of SAD is difficulty sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. Keeping a regular sleep schedule helps you get consistent light exposure. Make healthy choices for meals and snacks to combat weight gain. Don’t turn to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief. Practice stress management.
- Socialize. This can be difficult when you are feeling depressed. Make effort to connect with people you enjoy to get the support you need.
- Brighten your environment. Open your blinds and increase the amount of indoor lighting. Avoid living or working in a dim environment.
- Take a vacation to a sunny, warmer climate. Even a few days can give you a break from overcast skies and lift your mood.
Ann Sheerin, MA
Asheerin @ GROWcounseling.com