Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, is a type of depression that literally follows a seasonal pattern. It systematically appears and disappears at the same time each year. The people who are affected by SAD experience depression-like symptoms beginning in the fall which may continue for 5 to 7 months until spring returns and the days become longer again.
Just like many different types of depression, the symptoms of SAD can range from the mild type to the severe type that can be very debilitating. If left untreated, SAD symptoms can impair social and occupational functioning which could snow-ball into isolation, withdrawal and sometimes, incapacitation. SAD sufferers are known to take more “sick” days from their jobs during the winter months and also tend to see an increase in appetite and an increased need for sleep.
- know the symptoms and causes of SAD
- spend time outside
- reach out to a counselor/therapist
- try light therapy
- consider medication
- stay in bed all morning
- leave your days unstructured
- blow off your symptoms as unimportant
- resort to alcohol for relief
The symptoms of SAD include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Loss of energy
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in activities that usually give you pleasure
- Increased appetite/Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of suicide (in extreme cases)
One of the reasons why people suffer from SAD is that the decrease in daylight exposure in the fall months triggers the human brain into a kind of cerebral confusion. Hence, the built in human clock, also known as the Circadian Rhythm, is thrown out of whack. Why this happens is not fully understood but many scientists believe that the role of sunlight in the brain’s production of certain vital chemicals is affected. For example, chemicals that are produced naturally in the body like serotonin and melatonin, which are key elements responsible for regulating mood and sleep.
So, an increase in levels of serotonin occurs when the brain is exposed to sunlight. Accordingly, high levels of serotonin are associated with elevated mood and low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and anxiety.
Conversely, melatonin is linked to sleeping and it is produced in greater quantities in the brain when it is exposed to darkness. So, shorter days and less light increase production of melatonin which can cause sleepiness and lethargy. Therefore, more darkness (shorter days) can significantly affect your mood.
Approximately, 6 in every 100 people experience SAD. It’s most common in older teens and young adults usually starting in their early 20s. The predominance of SAD varies from region to region. The northern countries in the higher latitudes of the world that experience very long winters with limited light are most affected.
Get outside as often as you can. Take a walk everyday if you are able. If weather allows, take your lunch break in a park or at an outdoor cafe. On weekends, plan activities that will keep you outdoors for as long as you can. The more light you are exposed to the better.
Find a trained clinician specializing in depression who can help you examine potentially distressing issues in your life that might be exacerbating the SAD. A counselor/therapist may help you change negative thinking patterns that leave you in a constant state of worry. Perhaps these unresolved emotional issues could be adding to your depression.
Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open windows and blinds and remove any exterior obstacles that block sunlight from entering your home. You may also want to sit closer to bright windows at home or in the office. In severe cases, when a great deal of exposure to light is necessary, people buy light boxes and “phototherapy” lamps which they sit under for up to 45 minutes per day.
“Move a muscle, change a thought” is a good slogan to remember. Physical activity not only produces endorphins in the brain that make you feel happy but exercise also helps to focus the mind on your body for a change. Remember, the mind cannot be in two places at the same time. Exercise helps to shift your focus.
In combination with talk therapy, anti-depressants can also help to regulate the balance in serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood and energy. Medication is not for everyone but for many it can be a positive game changer.
Avoid too much exposure to darkness. Get up at a reasonable time. Do not return to your bed until it’s time to sleep in the evening. Staying in bed too long means you will be overly exposed to darkness and your eyes (as mentioned above) need to perceive light to secrete serotonin.
“The idle mind is the devils playground.” Don’t leave your days unstructured. Don’t be a couch potato. Not having anything to do all day long could make you over-magnify small, insignificant problems in your life that you should not be dwelling on. Your mind needs to be challenged every day.
Never underestimate the power of a mental condition, even if it’s mild. Left untreated your SAD symptoms could escalate and get a lot worse very fast. Don’t neglect your symptoms by trying to plow through your day feeling depressed. It is ill-advised to stay depressed all winter long.
Isolation from others and not reaching out and asking for support is a disaster waiting to happen. No shame in seeking support and guidance. The more alone you are, the worse the depression gets. Depression loves secrets.
Remember, alcohol is a depressant. So if you are drinking alcohol in excess to relieve your symptoms of depression, you are essentially treating your depression with a depressant. Bad idea. Alcohol and depression create a perfect storm for poor decision making, reckless behavior, and may increase thoughts of suicide.
If you suffer symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, then you should do what you can to find help before the depression gets out of control and starts to affect your daily life. A therapist or counselor will help you to change negative thinking patterns, spending time outside, exercising and spending time with friends will help to relieve symptoms as well. Follow this advice to help you feel better during these distressing times.