If the winter months get you down, you’re not alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects millions of people, and it’s more than just the winter blues. It can affect your mental and physical health.
Here’s what you need to know about SAD, including how to recognize signs and symptoms, some available treatments, and how to help those around you if you think they suffer from this condition.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression. It is more than feeling sad or unhappy, and it is not a condition that can be wished away. Symptoms start in the late fall and continue into the winter months. They are most severe during December, January, and February. Generally, SAD resolves itself during the light-filled days of spring. (There also is a form of summer SAD, thought to be caused by the heat, humidity, and allergies. Summer SAD is much less common.) SAD usually starts in adulthood. It is rare among people who are under age 20. It is more common among women than men.
What causes SAD?
The exact cause is not known, but it is thought that SAD is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight. Light stimulates the hormone, serotonin, in our brain which makes us feel happy. Increased darkness on the other hand prompts the brain to make more melatonin, causing sleepiness and reduced energy.
What are the signs of SAD?
SAD can affect how you feel, think, and behave. The symptoms are persistent and can be severe. While not every person experiences all the symptoms, here are some common ones for winter SAD.
- Losing interest in activities: If the activities that usually interest you lose their appeal, that’s a symptom of a low mood or depression.
- Low energy and sluggishness: You may find it difficult to muster the energy to do the most basic tasks. You might experience extreme fatigue.
- Sleeping too much: You find yourself sleeping more than usual, and you have difficulty waking up. You may experience daytime drowsiness.
- Appetite changes: You crave the mood and energy boosting comfort of carbs. However, overloading on carbs can lead to weight gain.
- Difficulty concentrating: You may be unable to focus and have trouble thinking clearly.
- Negative thinking: You may feel hopeless, worthless, or even suicidal. You might be anxious and irritable.
What are options for treatment?
Without treatment, SAD can last months. However, most people who seek help can see improvement in a matter of weeks. The symptoms of SAD may look like other mental health conditions, so it’s important to get a diagnosis. A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose SAD and offer options for treatment. Treatments may include:
- Light therapy: This involves sitting in front of a special light in a lightbox or panel for a specific amount of time each day.
- Sunlight exposure: Spending more time outside during daylight hours can help. Consider a daily walk or outdoor exercise.
- Psychotherapy: Talk therapy can help you to understand SAD and manage its symptoms from anxiety to depression.
- Medications: ln some cases, antidepressants may be prescribed to correct the chemical imbalance caused by SAD.
Here are some ways to help prevent SAD.
You can take steps to prepare for winter SAD, which may help to reduce its effects.
- It may be tempting to go into hibernation mode when it starts to become dark early. However, that can perpetuate the feelings of depression. Instead, plan activities to stay social. This will help to boost your mood.
- Exercise regularly. If you can exercise in the sunlight, that’s a double boost.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet. If you’re tempted by carbs for a quick energy boost, go for complex carbohydrates instead. For example, choose whole grain breads and fruits over sweets and chips.
- Maintain a consistent sleep routine. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, especially before bed.
Finally, seek professional help if your symptoms persist. SAD is treatable, and fortunately, does not last forever.
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