Months of cold and fewer daylight hours can leave anyone feeling less than energetic. But if you regularly suffer from depression in the fall and winter, you may have a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is very real and can profoundly affect your professional and personal life. Here’s what you need to know about this potentially serious condition.
What causes SAD?
Research is ongoing, but scientists believe that SAD is related to various factors and causes, including:
- Reduced sensitivity to light
- Problems with a person’s biological clock (circadian rhythm)
- Decreased levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood
Do I have SAD?
SAD can be difficult to diagnose. Many of its symptoms are similar to those of other mental health and emotional issues. Generally, symptoms that recur for at least two consecutive winters, without any other explanation suggest SAD.
If you think you may have SAD, check for these symptoms as the season starts to change:
- Change in appetite, especially cravings for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Decreased energy
- Tendency to oversleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of social situations
- Feelings of anxiety and despair
Am I at risk for developing SAD?
Depending on where in the world you live, SAD can affect close to 10% of the general population, and some people are more at risk than others:
Age: SAD may affect some children and teenagers, but it tends to begin in people over the age of 18
Gender: The condition is more common in women than in men
Geography: People who live in northern countries, where winter days are shorter, are also at higher risk
The good news is there are steps you can take to make things better.
How can I deal with SAD?
SAD can seriously affect your personal and professional life. If you find yourself thinking about harming yourself or others, seek professional help immediately. There are also a few things you can do for yourself to keep SAD at bay:
- Spend more time outdoors during daylight hours. For example, walk to the grocery store or shovel the driveway.
- Redesign your interior. Keep the curtains open during the day. Add lamps and rearrange furniture so that you can sit near a window as often as possible. Also, trim tree branches that block light.
- Make outdoor exercise part of your daily life. Walk your dog at the park or stroll around the block on your lunch hour. If you prefer to exercise indoors, position yourself near a window for maximum sunlight exposure.
- Take a winter vacation in a sunny place. This can temporarily relieve SAD symptoms.
- Resist the carbohydrate cravings that come with SAD by sticking to a healthy diet.
You can also speak with your doctor or health care provider about Light therapy. This treatment involves sitting next to a special light box for several minutes each day.