SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
More than just the winter blues, or feeling in a funk around the holidays, over three million cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are diagnosed each year. Because it is a type of depression, SAD often affects the mood and can cause feelings of emptiness or anxiety, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Also present are the other common symptoms of depression such as hopelessness, loss of pleasure or interest in things once enjoyed, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, changes in sleep, and thoughts of death or suicide. The disorder reads more than just the acronym, and while sadness can be a symptom, it affects the overall well-being of an individual potentially causing issues at work, home and in relationships.
SAD is characterized by its onset during season changes, more notable during fall and winter months. According to the Mayo Clinic, it typically begins and ends around the same time each year. For a small number of people, the condition can occur during spring and beginning of summer as well. The symptoms that tend to be more SAD-related, while also generalized for major depression disorder as well, are irritability, tiredness or low energy, an increase in appetite, hypersensitivity to rejection and oversleeping. Alternatively, the Mayo Clinic identifies weight loss and insomnia as symptoms related to SAD in the spring and summer months.
Like with many other mental health conditions, there are risk factors that make individuals more likely to develop the diagnosis, though it does not guarantee it. The NIH states that women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men. Those with a family history of depression or any subtype of depression are also more prone, as are those who already have a current diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder. Young adults tend to be more likely to experience SAD than older adults, and it can even be found in teens and children. The NIH states that the exact causes of SAD remain unknown, but that some research has shown biological factors to be a likely contributor, such as difficulty with regulating serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects mood), an overproduction of melatonin and a lower production of Vitamin D.
It’s important to consult a doctor or mental health professional if there are concerns over the above symptoms and a possible diagnosis of SAD. Treatment for the seasonal disorder, while very similar to the treatment for major depression, is based upon each individual. It may be useful for one’s treatment plan to include a combination of medication and talk therapy, or just one or the other. Additionally, light therapy is a technique used specifically for SAD and according to the NIH, has been used since the 1980s. The purpose of light therapy is to replace the light that is limited during the winter and fall months. This can include sitting in front of a light box, which filters out UV rays, for anywhere from 20-60 minutes. The cool-white fluorescent light is nearly 20 times brighter than regular indoor lighting.
More traditional treatment for SAD includes that which also treats major depression and other mental health disorders, such as psychotherapy or talk therapy. More specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on how the pattern of negative thoughts affects mood and emotions which, therefore, affect behavior. A specific technique of CBT that is focused around the symptoms of SAD include a focus on helping people identify and engage in activities that produce pleasure in combatting the negative effects of winter. And while Vitamin D supplementation is not regarded as a stand-alone treatment, the NIH states that it can be beneficial in combination with other forms of treatment.
The dangers of SAD if left untreated mirror those of major depression. Suicidal thoughts or behaviors, poor school or work performance, social withdrawal and a propensity for substance abuse are some of the more serious concerns. Be sure to notify a doctor or other mental health professional of the time frame in which symptoms have been experienced, the pattern in which they occur, severity, any significant life events that may have contributed or new medications. Most importantly, ask questions and seek treatment if recommended.
– Katie Ho