For most people, losing daylight is not part of the holiday season we look forward to.
After the schedule reset courtesy of the end of daylight saving time, many of us who work 9 to 5 ended our days with a darkened drive home, as the sun set a half-hour before clocking out.
Understandably, shorter days combined with longer, darker and often colder nights put a damper on the moods of many, leaving us feeling tired and longing for the milder days of spring and summer.
While feeling more down in the dumps is not uncommon during these times of low sunlight, the mood swing goes much further for the roughly 5% of the American population who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
While this condition is quite common, it presents a variety of quite serious symptoms, many of which can lead to disruptions in relationships, work life, and a person’s ability to function on a daily basis. Those who suspect or know they have SAD are advised to seek professional help, as this disorder has life-altering consequences and many treatments to help alleviate symptoms.
Here are some things to keep in mind about SAD.
What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?
According to Kimberly E Kleinman, the senior psychologist at Newyork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. Most often associated with winter and fall, SAD usually occurs and ends at about the same time each year for those affected.
“In particular, people with SAD typically experience mood swings and depression-like symptoms around the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight, and generally improve by spring,” Kleinman told USA Today. “It’s important to note that it is also possible to have SAD in the summer, but it is much less common.”
Shorter days and less sunlight are thought to cause chemical changes in the brain, including increased production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which has been linked to symptoms of depression.
SAD is a subcategory of depressive disorders, meaning that the symptoms of seasonal depression generally align with those under the broader depression umbrella. However, the disorder is more than just the “Winter Blues,” and is a persistent and consistent form of clinical depression that occurs annually for the duration of the season.
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Who experiences sadness and what causes it?
There is no universally agreed upon definitive cause of SAD. However, an estimated 10 million Americans are affected by SAD annually, and women are four times more likely than men to receive a formal diagnosis of SAD. Younger people, generally between 20 and 30 years old, are also more likely to be recognized as having a blues.
“Although what causes SAD is not fully understood, less sunlight and shorter days are thought to be related to chemical changes in the brain, especially serotonin and melatonin,” Kleinman said. “Research indicates that people with SAD may have reduced activity of serotonin, which helps regulate mood. It may also be caused by too much melatonin, which causes drowsiness. The body naturally produces more melatonin when it is dark “When the days are shorter and darker, more melatonin is produced.”
While there is no definitive answer, there are believed to be some common contributing factors, including:
- Low vitamin D It can occur when someone does not get enough of the vitamin through their diet or exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is a factor in the production of serotonin, one of the brain’s “happy” chemicals.
- Pre-existing mental health conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or other mood disorders. These may be exasperated by factors related to SAD.
- Family history and genetic factors can play a role. As with many other mental health disorders, having family members who also suffer from depression and/or sadness may indicate that you are more likely to experience these and also similar conditions.
- Environmental factors such as living further from the equator, where sunlight decreases dramatically in winter, can increase the occurrence of SAD.
- Age and gender are relevant to diagnosis rates. Women and young adults are more likely to be recognized as having SAD.
- Chemical levels Inside our bodies, help determine our mood. Too much or too little melatonin (the sleep chemical) and serotonin (a mood chemical) can have a dramatic impact on how we feel. In the winter, a lack of sunlight can affect the production of both.
- Disturbances to your biological clock Or your circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep, can cause feelings of tiredness and low mood. Because our bodies take cues from our environment to dictate our sleep and attention cycles, the amount of sunlight we are exposed to has an impact on our internal clock.
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Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms of SAD overlap with other forms of depression and other mental health conditions, meaning that a professional diagnosis is necessary to definitively determine whether a person is suffering from seasonal depression.
The most common symptoms return and then improve at about the same times each year.
According to the Mayo Clinic and John Hopkins Medicine, the most common symptoms include:
- Feeling of sluggishness, fatigue or lack of energy during the day.
- Increased need for sleep or sleeping longer and more frequently than usual.
- Feeling sad or down most days.
- Loss of interest and pleasure in activities you normally enjoy.
- Withdrawal and social isolation, increased irritability and anxiety.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness.
- Decreased sexual desire.
- Decreased ability to focus or concentrate, problems thinking clearly.
- Increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbohydrates.
- Weight gain.
- Headaches, aches and pains, and other physical symptoms.
- In the case of spring or summer depression, symptoms may reverse in the form of insomnia, decreased appetite, and weight loss.
Depression can affect many facets of a person’s life, leading to consequences such as social withdrawal and strained relationships, problems functioning at school or work, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, impulsive decision making, self-medication to through substance abuse and the onset or worsening of other health problems.
“Similar to all forms of depression, SAD can be associated with more severe symptoms such as frequent (almost daily) thoughts of worthlessness, guilt, and depressed mood,” Kleinman said. “Depression can also be associated with recurring thoughts of death, suicide, or self-harm.”
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, Kleinman urged, immediately contact a healthcare provider, visit your local emergency room, or call the 988 Lifeline for 24/7, free, confidential support and crisis resources.
Treatments for seasonal depression
As with other forms of depression, there is no definitive “cure” or treatment for SAD. Getting help for any mental health concern usually includes consulting with a care team to determine what combination of treatments and supportive solutions are best for you.
“If someone suspects they may be affected by SAD, I recommend contacting a healthcare provider to be evaluated,” Kleinman said. “A provider will be able to understand a patient’s medical history and customize a treatment plan to best address an individual’s needs…it is important to note that typically a combination of treatments is most effective.”
Symptom management will look different from one individual to another, but there are some interventions commonly used for the treatment of SAD patients:
- Psychotherapy Including often used forms of “talk therapy” such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people better understand and manage their seasonal depression. Therapists can guide patients to identify stressors, develop coping skills, and navigate their symptoms.
- Medicine It is a common way to treat symptoms related to chemical imbalances. Antidepressants can help elevate mood, decrease anxiety, and correct biologically related causes of depression.
- light therapy It is commonly used because increased light exposure is a natural treatment for SAD. Exposure to sunlight provides necessary vitamins and signals that our bodies use to determine things like sleep and wake cycles. When a natural source of life is not enough, lamps made specifically for the treatment of SAD are often introduced. These lamps or light boxes are designed to provide access to bright light while limiting UV exposure.
“SAD is more than the ‘Winter Blues,’ it is technically a diagnosis of depression with a seasonal pattern,” Kleinman advised. “It can be distressing and overwhelming and interfere with daily function for patients. If you are experiencing blues, you don’t have to suffer through the winter seasons without support.”
Tips to combat sadness
- Embrace that sunlight as much as possible. While shorter winter days may leave limited time outside of work and school hours to enjoy the outdoors, it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity to get outside and enjoy the real things. Whether this is achieved through a daily walk, winter sports, or even sitting by a window, mere exposure to the sun can help.
- Be attentive to your diet, especially during the cold months when our bodies are tempted to load up on carbs and other heavy foods. A healthy, well-balanced and proportionately appropriate diet plays an important role in overall energy and well-being.
- Keep active And try not to stay cooped up inside all winter. Regular exercise has long been recognized as an effective means of reducing symptoms of depression. Moving your body outside your home is associated with several mental health benefits.
- Stay committed and avoid temptations to self-isolate. Stay in close contact and spend time with family and friends, sign up for activities in your community, get out of the house and around other people. Staying involved and socially engaged helps with feelings of loneliness and despair.
- Avoid complicating factors like drugs and alcohol. While it is common for people to turn to self-medication, the use of such substances has been shown to worsen depression and potentially cause more problems.
- to be aware of your mental health and know that you don’t have to ignore or suffer through feelings of depression. If he is struggling, don’t ignore it. If you have already started treatment, recognizing that feeling better is a process.