Seasonal Affective Disorder
As we round the corner towards spring, we may be feeling like “old man winter” has held on way too long. The shorter days bring in more dark and less sun which can impact our moods. In fact, it is possible that you feel depressed and this is normal for you every winter. If so, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD is winter depression. Some people are very influenced by the sun and will experience a lower mood when the sun has not been out for days even during other times of the year (such as when it has been cloudy and rainy for days). SAD has more significant symptoms than that of a “blue day”. It is depression that is influenced by the lack of sun light.
Typical symptoms of SAD are low mood, lack of energy, increased sleeping, and craving sweets. Other symptoms might include tiredness, fatigue, depression, crying spells, irritability, trouble concentrating, body aches, loss of sex drive, poor sleep, decreased activity level, and overeating, especially of carbohydrates which can be associated with weight gain. Symptoms may begin in the fall, peak in the winter and resolve in the spring. In severe cases, thoughts of suicide can be part of SAD.
SAD is more predominant in women with women reporting SAD four times more than men. Incidents of SAD increase the further away from the equator. It affects about 4-6 % of the population with 1 in 25 people having SAD. (Stoppler) It is thought that this disorder is somehow related to melatonin, which is a sleep hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin helps to control hormone secretion, body temperature, and sleep. This hormone is produced when it is dark increasing the of it in the body. When the days are shorter and darker, it may be that this hormone is producing too much and causing depression. (Mental Health Association).
And not surprising, since SAD is caused by the lack of sunlight, treatment for it can include “light therapy” (called phototherapy). Light therapy has been found to be as effective for some people as antidepressants or psychotherapy and might be a nice alternative to using medications. Regular exposure to light that is bright (particularly fluorescent light) significantly improves depression in people with seasonal affective disorder.
Light therapy should be used in the morning and daytime for the best results. Using it in the evening could prevent you from sleeping. Light therapy entails sitting in front of a light box with your eyes open for about 30 minutes a day. This light box is a small, portable device that contains fluorescent bulbs or tubes. This device emits an intense light that isn’t found in your normal household light. The light must be about 25 times as bright as normal living room light. It does not have to be actual daylight from the sun. It is not necessarily the quality of light that matters in the light treatment but the quantity of it that matters in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. The light treatment can suppress the brain’s production of melatonin, causing a biochemical change in your brain that lifts your mood and relieves the symptoms of seasonal effective disorder. The light treatment does have some side effects, which can include irritability, insomnia, headaches, eyestrain, and sensitivity to light. Light therapy devices are not approved by the FDA but can be bought over the counter without a prescription. It should be noted that light therapy may increase manic episodes in people who have bipolar disorder. In addition, some people with severe depression have reported feelings of suicide after the light therapy.(mayoclinic.com).
If you find yourself experiencing thoughts of suicide, stop the treatment and consult with a licensed mental health provider.
Other treatment options for SAD include the same treatment that is used for treatment of depression. Exercise should be on the top of the list for depression as it helps to naturally release the serotonin into the body which will help to elevate the mood. Antidepressants can be used during those dark months, particularly those from the serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor family (SSRI). SSRI’s include drugs such as Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, and Celexa. Common side effects for this class of medications can include insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased sex drive or performance. And along with these options, psychotherapy has been found to accentuate the effectiveness of medical treatment so is a viable option in addressing this disorder.
Regardless of your choices of treatment, it is important to realize what seasonal affective disorder is. If you think you or someone you love may be experiencing this, contact your doctor or a licensed mental health provider to guide you in the process of treatment so that you can feel better. Why feel bad every year during the winter months when you can feel good? It is very treatable.
Association, M. H. (n.d.). Retrieved from www1.nmha.org.
Stoppler, M. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.medicinenet.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janie Pfeifer Watson
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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