If you reside in one of the many U.S. states that Mother Nature has made her prey this winter, you know firsthand that everyone could use a little (warm) sunshine in their bones this February. The days are short, the sunlight is limited, and the temperatures are cold. There’s not much to be excited about, leaving many down in the dumps, but there’s still a distinction between the typical mid-winter blues and a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is type of depression that affects a person during the same season each year, according to WebMD, and though it can occur in individuals who live in warmer climates, it is most common in people who live in areas where winter days are very short and where there is a big change in the amount of daylight available during different seasons.
According to MedicineNet.com, the disorder occurs in 1 percent to 10 percent of adults, and its prevalence is typically dependent on geographical location. While seasonal affective disorder is less common in areas where there is snow on the ground, it is about four times more common in women than men, and the average age of people when they first develop this illness is 23 years of age, though the range of those most commonly affected is generally believed to be between 15 and 55. Those with relatives who experience SAD are also more inclined to experience symptoms.
One of the most important parts of understanding a SAD diagnosis is recognizing what triggers the specific type of depression and how it can be treated. Although the specific cause of the depression remains unknown, the Mayo Clinic reports that the body’s natural chemical makeup coupled with outside triggers are believed to play a role in the development of the condition.
The main trigger of SAD is believed to relate to a lack of sunlight many experience in the winter and how the body responds to the reduction. Both WebMD and the Mayo Clinic explain that this lack of sunlight can upset your sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms, and then the disruption can lead to symptoms of depression.
In addition, reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, also triggering depression. The change in seasons can also disrupt the balance of the natural hormone melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood, helping explain why those who suffer from SAD often experience their first bouts of the depression in early fall, even when sunlight is still relatively abundant.
Though it is sometimes difficult for doctors to distinguish between nonseasonal depression and SAD, when diagnosing seasonal affective disorder, they typically look for symptoms of tiredness, fatigue, depression, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, poor sleep, decreased activity level, and overeating, especially of carbohydrates, as reported by Medicinenet.com.
They also ask affected patients if they are typically depressed during the same season every year, with the depression letting up when the seasons change, and ask if they have been sleeping more than usual and experiencing weird cravings (especially that of carbohydrates) that often lead to weight gain. If a close relative has had SAD, doctors will also typically ask about that.
Once a diagnosis is made, there are a number of steps those affected can take for treatment, and they don’t even require you to fly South for the winter. WebMD reports that many doctors recommend light therapy, also called phototherapy, in which patients sit a few feet from a specialized light therapy box, exposing themselves to bright light. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Another kind of light therapy is dawn simulation, a technique that involves timing lights in the bedroom to come on gradually, over a period of 30 minutes to two hours, before awakening. A dim light goes on in the morning while patients sleep and then gets brighter over time, like a sunrise.
Light therapy is often one of physicians’ go-to treatments because it appears to be effective and can start working fast, as quickly as two to four days without causing side effects, but research on the therapy is still limited. For those who don’t want to take the light therapy route, doctors can recommend antidepressant treatment if symptoms are especially severe, or those affected can also attend counseling.
The topic of psychotherapy is often breached because although seasonal affective disorder is thought to be related to brain chemistry, one’s mood and behavior also can add to symptoms, the Mayo Clinic explains. Psychotherapy can help patients identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that could be making them feel worse, and patients can also learn the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder and manage stress.
Seasonal affective disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, especially because it is so common, affecting close to 10 percent of people in Northern states. Although one’s chemical makeup has a lot to do with the trigger of the depression, there are still measures people can take to manage SAD and even avoid its onset. The Mayo Clinic reports that this includes making your work environment the brightest it can be, getting outside as much as possible, and exercising regularly.
Though this season’s bitterly cold temperatures have made it nearly impossible for many to go outside and stay there for a long period of time, sitting close to bright windows and opening blinds can still help. In addition, even if you’re forced to exercise inside, physical exercise can help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which contribute to seasonal affective disorder symptoms, and staying fit can help deter the unhealthy craving that sometimes result from experiencing a case of SAD.