Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Stephen DeJaynes, MA, LCPC

Winter months can cause behavior change in most people.  With less daylight and more cold temperatures, we are more likely to become “homebodies” and less likely to spend time with friends and family outside the home engaged in physical or social activities. That shift can affect us both physically and emotionally as we neglect our physical health and support systems. However, for more than 10 million Americans, the change in seasons results in a more dramatic and serious form of depression.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that appears during the fall and winter months. More than just feeling sometimes “blue” or sluggish, people with SAD experience frequent sadness or depression most of the day, every day during the season.  Other symptoms include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts
  • Low energy or excessive sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight or cravings for carbohydrates
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Avoidance of friends, family and social situations

Symptoms of SAD tend to reoccur about the same time every year. It is important to identify symptoms so that prevention and treatment can be implemented quickly each year to lessen its affects.

What causes SAD?
While the exact cause for SAD is unknown, there are many theories and risk factors to consider.  The seasonal darkness can contribute to hormone regulation and levels of Vitamin D in the body which can contribute to feelings of sleepiness, lethargy and mood swings.  Researchers have noted that SAD is more common in women as well as people who live in areas with more significant changes in season (farther north) and those with a family history of other types of depression.

Treating and preventing SAD
There are several treatments and behavior changes that can be implemented to battle the effects of SAD.

  1. Track behaviors. Utilize a journal to help you objectively identify which symptoms are significant. Monitor behaviors including sleep, meals and snacks, time with others versus time alone, alcohol or drug intake, exercise or activity and changes in mood. Share the journal with your mental health care professional to get an unbiased assessment of concern and strategies for improved health.
  2. Plan activities. Based on your activity monitoring, make plans to adjust those behaviors that inhibit your optimal mental health.
    1. Set a time to go to bed and wake each day. Consistent sleep habits allowing 7-8 hours of sleep each night supports both physical and mental health.
    2. Plan meals and snacks that are nutritious – full of whole grains, proteins and fruits and vegetables. Include plenty of water throughout your day.
    3. Find time during the day to get sunlight. While the cold temperatures may prevent you from going outside, find time to sit in front of a window where the sun offers both warmth and light.
    4. Schedule time with friends and family. Your support system is key! Plan time together with activities and conversation.

Seek help. In addition to changes in behavior, your doctor or mental health professional may be able to introduce additional support through counseling, light therapy and medication as needed.  It is important to seek help before complications of SAD occur including missed time at work, substance abuse, social disconnection or suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

StephenD2“Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression that appears at a time when we believe it’s normal to feel a little down so it’s often left ignored. However, left undiagnosed and untreated, SAD can deeply affect one’s life, health and relationships. We’ve worked with patients to put strategies in place to optimize healthy mental and physical habits to minimize the impact of seasonal depression and improve a seasonal quality of life.”

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