Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder

During the winter months, the weather grows colder and the days grow shorter. Instead of being bathed in a golden light for up to 10 hours per day, people living in northern climates could only have four to five available hours of light per day, and that light may be filtered through a deep, thick layer of clouds or fog. It may be too cold for people to head outside and enjoy the sunlight that is available. While many people would call the winter months somber or even slightly annoying, some people struggle with symptoms of depression in the winter months. People with severe depressive symptoms in the winter may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Shifting Light

The human body contains small glands that respond to light. The pineal gland, located deep in the brain, sends out melatonin signals when the skies are dark, helping to lull people to sleep. During the winter months, when the skies are often dark, this little gland can move into overdrive and cause a person with SAD to feel constantly tired. It’s a bit like a form of hibernation, causing the person to crave sleep, and this craving may not abate even if the person sleeps more than usual.

Seasonal Affective DisorderIn addition to this feeling of exhaustion, people with SAD also experience these symptoms, according to Mental Health America:

  • A sensation of hopelessness or despair
  • Cravings for foods that are sweet or full of starch
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interest in sex and/or social situations
  • Anxiety

These symptoms may begin in the fall, when the days begin to shorten and people spend more time indoors. They may peak in January or February, and then completely subside by April or May. While everyone might feel a little low in the winter, in order to receive a diagnosis of SAD, a person must have had three winters of these feelings, and the feelings must completely abate in the spring and summer months. The feelings cannot be associated with an outside event, such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.
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Depressing WeatherPrevalence, Risk Factors and Risks

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, between four and six percent of people in the United States have seasonal affective disorder. While adolescents and even some small children develop the disorder, it is most common in people older than 18, and women are impacted by the disorder more often than men.

The risk of SAD depends heavily upon where the person lives. According to a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research, people who live in the northern latitudes are much more likely to develop SAD than people who live near the equator. This makes sense, as SAD is a disease associated with light. People who live near the equator don’t experience the radical shifts in light that people in the northern portions of the globe do. In fact, they may not have the cloudy days and cooler temperatures that drive SAD.

Genetics may play a role as well in susceptibility to SAD. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 55 percent of people with SAD have a close relative who has been diagnosed with severe depression, and 34 percent have a close relative who has been diagnosed with an addiction to alcohol. These mental illnesses and/or addictions are quite different from SAD, but they may share the same genetic pathways or neurological patterns.

If seasonal affective disorder is a condition that comes and goes with the changing seasons, it can be tempting to consider it a part of life and leave it untreated. This could be a risky route to take. SAD is a form of depression, after all, and leaving depression untreated could lead to social withdrawal, loss of employment or even thoughts of suicide. In addition, according to the Mayo Clinic, SAD tends to grow stronger with time if it’s left untreated, which could mean that the next year could be even more difficult. Some people can even develop serious cases of SAD that reappear in the summer when the weather grows overcast or foggy.
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Seasonal DepressionGetting Help

People with SAD are often feeling so low and depressed that they can’t see the point of asking for help. They may never consider calling their doctors, and if they do, they may hide their symptoms for fear of being judged or ridiculed. The illness is strong, and the habits it causes can be difficult for the person to emerge from. Often, the person will need the help of friends and family members in order to heal. In a gentle, loving conversation, the family can outline how SAD treatments work, and they can even offer to go to the appointments with the person. This might seem forceful, or a bit pushy, but the person’s life is on the line and it pays to be proactive. Treatment works, but only if the person chooses to accept it. Ideally, according to an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, treatments should begin in the fall, when the person is feeling well, but some may resist this idea and only see the need for therapy when they are feeling quite down.

Many primary care doctors can diagnose SAD, but some people may choose to work with specialized facilities that can provide more comprehensive care. It can be difficult to differentiate between depression and SAD, as the two contain so many of the same symptoms and risk factors, and some people may have both conditions at the same time.

In that first appointment, doctors may ask questions such as:

  • When did the symptoms begin?
  • Does this happen every year?
  • Are you using any medications, drugs or alcohol to help medicate your symptoms?
  • Do you have any other mental illnesses?

These questions are designed to help doctors pull together a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses all of the issues the person might be facing. Someone with a basic case of SAD might benefit from one type of therapy, while someone with SAD and a substance abuse disorder might need more advanced treatments.
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SAD weatherCommon Therapies

Most people with seasonal affective disorder receive some form of treatment with bright light. The lamps used to treat SAD run on bulbs with temperatures between 3,000 and 6,500 degrees Kelvin, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and they have plastic covers that help protect the user from receiving doses of radiation from this light. According to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, “bright light had a marked antidepressant effect” in the 13 people studied. Some people were able to maintain this recovery when the study ended by using their own light boxes at home.

While this all sounds remarkable, it doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, if people don’t respond to light therapy within two weeks of treatment, they may never respond. These people may need antidepressants, talk therapy or both. In addition, using light therapy is remarkably subjective. People have to use the lights at the right time and keep the lights at a proper distance from their eyes, and this can be hard to determine without the help of an expert.

For all of these reasons, and many more, it’s not advisable for someone with SAD to try to treat the condition at home without the help of a professional. The disorder is too serious, and treatments are too complex, to undertake without the help of a professional.

If you or someone you know has symptoms of SAD, it’s time to get the needed help. Call us today at our toll-free number and we’ll be able to answer questions you may have about the condition and treatment options.