With winter approaching and the days getting shorter, you may find yourself feeling down and having less energy. This could be a sign that you are dealing with seasonal affective disorder also known as SAD or major depressive disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAD is a type of depression and not a separate disorder. It is usually characterized by recurrence of symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year starting in fall and continuing through winter.
The most common signs of SAD include fatigue, feelings of anxiousness, stress, irritability, and difficulties making decisions.
The specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors that can contribute include:
- Circadian rhythms (your biological clock). The reduced level of sunlight that disrupts your body’s internal clock and leads to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood and can trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in your body’s level of melatonin can affect both sleep patterns and mood.
SAD is more common among women than men and can begin at any age. It is also more prevalent in individuals living farther north, where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter.
John Booker, a medical and public health researcher at the University of Alaska Anchorage Circumpolar Health Institute, says humans have biological rhythms that correspond to the amount of light that reaches the brain. Some researchers say a lack of daylight such as that experienced in an Alaska winter affects the production of the hormone melatonin, also known as “the hormone of darkness” because it is normally secreted at night. (gi.alaska.edu)
Seasonal affective disorder may be difficult for health care providers or mental health professionals to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to other types of depression or other mental health conditions.
Treatment for SAD
There are several ways to treat seasonal affective disorder. The most popular treatments include light therapy, psychotherapy and antidepressants.
Patients treated with light therapy are generally exposed to artificial light for a period of 20 minutes or more per day. In most cases, these individuals can experience some improvement within one or two weeks from the start of treatment.
Additionally, spending time outside in direct sunlight has been proven to reduce symptoms of SAD. However, those with a higher risk for skin cancer should consult their doctor to evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of this treatment.
Another opinion to consider is psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. Your therapist may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to learn healthy ways to cope with and manage stress related to this disorder.
If symptoms are severe, your doctor may recommend an antidepressant. For example: An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin) may help prevent depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD.
Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from any antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects. (mayoclinic.org)
In some cases, a combination of light, talk therapy and medication may be required.
If you have bipolar disorder, light therapy or an antidepressant may trigger a manic episode. It’s recommended that people starting bright light therapy for bipolar depression consult with their doctor for guidance on a dose that’s both safe and effective.
If you think you or someone you know is suffering from seasonal affective disorder or having suicidal thoughts, consult with a doctor immediately or seek help at the closest emergency room. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255)