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Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Has winter weather got you down? While you may have a case of the winter blues, it could be the more serious seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that affects an estimated 5 percent of the U.S. population. Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD, can be terribly debilitating. It saps sufferers’ energy, concentration, and desire to socialize, and can last for months. Symptoms tend to be more pronounced during severe winters.

To get relief, it’s important for those affected to understand seasonal affective disorder symptoms, causes and treatment. This article helps answer the following five questions:

  • What are the signs of SAD?
    SAD

    Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Who is affected?
  • What are the causes?
  • What treatments are effective?
  • How else can individuals alleviate symptoms?

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression, but build up over months and recur annually. While seasonal affective disorder in winter is most common, some people experience it each summer. Typically symptoms become more severe as the season progresses.

According to National Institute of Health, SAD symptoms include:

  • Sadness
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, and irritable
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Excessive sleep (or difficulty sleeping)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lower productivity at work or school
  • Difficulty handling stress

For a seasonal affective disorder diagnosis, a person must meet the criteria for major depression that coincides with the winter season (or summer) for at least two years, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Causes 

The exact cause or causes of SAD is not known, but researchers believe it is linked to melatonin and serotonin, two chemicals in the brain that regulate sleep, mood and energy, according to the Mayo Clinic. Too much melatonin and too little serotonin can set the stage for SAD.

The pineal gland in the brain produces melatonin to induce sleep. During the winter, when nights are longer, more melatonin is produced. That abundance is believed to negatively affect some people during the day. Serotonin levels go up with exposure to sunlight, so when days are shorter in winter, less serotonin is produced. Lower levels of serotonin are linked to depression.

Less sunlight in fall and winter may also disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Seasonal affective disorder risk factors:

  • People with a family history of depression are more susceptible to SAD
  • SAD affects women four times more than men
  • People who live far north and south of the equator are more likely to have SAD
  • People who suffer from major depression have a greater chance of developing SAD
  • SAD is more prevalent in young adults than in older adults

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

Light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications — often in combination — are effective seasonal affective disorder remedies.

  • Light therapy: This treatment has been around since the 1980s and uses a light box to mimic sunlight. Users sit in front of bright, artificial light for 20 minutes to an hour each morning from early fall through spring.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT, a type of talk therapy, helps SAD sufferers identify negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. The therapy helps them cope with winter by identifying engaging and pleasurable activities.
  • Medications: Antidepressants can improve seasonal affective disorder symptoms. such Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) ease depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain.

Living a healthy lifestyle can also help control symptoms of SAD. Here are 10 essential self-care tips:

  1. Go outside during daylight hours. This can help replenish serotonin levels.
  2. Get enough sleep. Go to bed and rise at the same time each day to help get your circadian rhythm back on track.
  3. Eat a diet high in proteins, vegetables, unprocessed foods and complex carbohydrates. While you may crave carbohydrates and sugar, they will only give you an unsustainable jolt of energy.
  4. Meditate and/or practice yoga to reduce stress. People with SAD tend to have trouble coping with stress. Doing meditation and yoga regularly has been shown to reduce stress levels and promote a sense of calm.
  5. Exercise daily. You don’t have to go to a gym. Take a walk (with the bonus of getting sunlight exposure!), dance, or simply stretch.
  6. Make plans to see friends and family. You may feel like hibernating, but once you get together with friends and share a laugh and memories, it’s likely you’ll be uplifted.
  7. Volunteer in your community. It feels good to help others, and it gets you out of the house!
  8. Plan a vacation to someplace sunny. Just planning a trip can boost happiness. And traveling to a sunny place should increase serotonin levels.
  9. Take medications regularly, as prescribed.
  10. Avoid alcohol, as it can exacerbate depression and interfere with medication.

Cold, nasty weather can affect anyone’s mood, not just people coping with seasonal affective disorder symptoms. An estimated 14 percent of U.S. residents grapple with a condition milder than SAD, known as the winter blues, according to Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, who first described the disorder in 1984.

If winter is getting you down, check out these five ways you can boost your mood: https://newbridge.org/education/5-ways-to-boost-your-mood-this-winter/. And if you feel you need professional help, contact NewBridge Services at 973-316-9333 or visit newbridge.org.

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