That down- in- the- dumps feeling you get when the days seem shorter, cold, bone chilling weather seems inescapable, and gloomy skies are above, is not all in your head. Feeling isolated, sad, alone, and blue during the winter months is a phenomenon that is very real. Seasonal depression, as it it is sometimes called, can have lasting effects on your physical and mental health and is an issue that deserves to be taken seriously.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, a condition whose acronym is known appropriately as S.A.D., includes many of the same symptoms as clinical depression. Onset occurs around the beginning of the fall season, with noted improvement sometime around spring. In addition to anhedonia, difficulty sleeping or alternately, a desire to sleep all day, unwanted changes in appetite and weight, and even a desire to self harm or commit suicide, can all be manifestations of seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder typically occurs towards the end of the year when the days are darker and the sun is out for shorter periods of time. Though rare, this condition can also present when the sun is out for longer periods of time, even during the spring and summer months. Whether it’s the heat, the blinding sun, or the disruption in your sleep cycle the sun may cause, this condition can seem cataclysmic to its sufferers no matter when it occurs.
Symptoms and Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to the American Psychiatric Association, seasonal affective disorder is marked, in addition to the symptoms listed above, by the presence of anxiety, restlessness, changes in speech patterns, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating or staying on task. Decreased energy levels make it difficult for patients to pull themselves out of the funk this condition puts them in, which only serves to further perpetuate their sadness and depressed mood.
Is it possible that seasonal affective disorder is a result of conditions beyond decreased sunlight and rainy weather however? Simply put, yes. For one, melatonin, a hormone linked to the sleep- wake cycle and mood, increases in the dark. The more hours of darkness, the more melatonin levels rise, the more disrupted mood and sleep cycles become.
Genetic factors and a proclivity toward mood disorders tend to be positively correlated with seasonal affective disorder. Individuals, most often women, with personal histories of depression and bipolar disorder, as well as those who live close to the equator, are also at greater risk for developing S.A.D.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is Not the Same Thing as Depression
Despite the fact that seasonal affective disorder and depression are symptomatically similar, they are indeed two, different diagnoses. While depression is not seasonally bound, S.A.D. most often begins at distinct times of the year, based on a lack of or decrease in sunlight. By extension, seasonal affective disorder lasts for shorter periods of time than clinical depression, dysthymia, or bipolar disorder. S.A.D. is a not considered a chronic condition, while the diagnoses listed here can last anywhere between 6 months to years. Lastly, while seasonal affective disorder contains aspects of depression, the reverse is not true
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are several ways to treat seasonal affective disorder. While your doctor or medical professional cannot change the temperature outside or when the sun rises and sets, there are ways to mimic each of these phenomena.
Whether you seek ongoing care from the physician who diagnosed your seasonal affective disorder or another medical professional, is up to you. That said, a physician who is familiar with your medical profile, as well as whether or not you can handle light therapy, or light box therapy, is vital for the proper care and treatment of S.A.D. Light therapy has proven helpful in the treatment of this condition, because it mimics the sun’s rays through the use of ultraviolet lights. With proper use, light boxes are able to increase the production of serotonin, which in turn helps to address or alleviate feelings of depression and sadness.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Meeting with a clinician who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent way to process your feelings. By examining your cognitions and developing behavioral strategies that ameliorate the sadness and helplessness the darkness sometimes brings, you can develop coping mechanisms that will pull you through the rest of the winter.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are just one type of antidepressant medication that is sometimes prescribed for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. It is important to understand that if you and your doctor feel medication would be beneficial, you can start it and then stop it when your days are brighter. You do not have to take medication indefinitely but should always discuss dosing and treatment plans with your physician before stopping any medications.
Exercise and Diet
As with nearly all mood conditions and disorders, eating a balanced diet low in sugars, fats, and alcohol is critical. Exercise is also a wonderful way to boost your serotonin levels, decrease feelings of sadness, and push through the season’s doldrums.
How to Get Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition that affects six to 14 percent of the population, in one capacity or another. With so many in the public dealing with this diagnosis year after year, it is important for practitioners and lay people alike to conduct themselves in ways that respect the severity and potential dangers of leaving S. A. D. untreated.
Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC of Body Systems Wellness in Glendale California possesses a conviction to his patients’ mental, physical and spiritual health and welfare. With your safety and wellbeing in mind, we urge you to take care of yourself and whatever ails your heart and soul, no matter the season.