It's More Than Just the Winter Blues: the Dangers of Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Nancy Travers,LCSW

We\’ve all heard about the winter blues. It can be difficult to be excited about celebrating or traveling when there is a chill in the air and the days are shorter. While some people go through brief bouts of unhappiness on particularly dark and dreary winter days, others are afflicted by a more serious winter mood change. Can you imagine feeling depressed and lonely throughout all of the winter and holidays? Seasonal Affective Disorder affects more than 5 percent of the population. This is a type of depression in which a person is affected in the same season every year.

Doctors and psychologists are not sure what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder. The major theory is that this depression is caused by a lack of sunlight. The smaller amounts of light contribute to changes in an individual\’s sleep-wake cycle, and circadian rhythms. Doctors also believe that it may have an effect on serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects mood and depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect anyone, but some people are at a higher risk than others. Many sufferers are those who live in an area that experiences large changes in the winter; areas where winter days are short and there is much less sunlight during the winter contributes to many people feeling the effects of SAD. Women are more likely to experience the effects of SAD, and many sufferers are individuals between the ages of 15 and 55.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, include:

  • Feeling sad, moody, or anxious during the winter months
  • Losing interest in your usual social interactions and hobbies during the winter
  • Eating more and craving carbohydrates
  • Gaining weight
  • Sleeping more often and feeling drowsy during the daytime

While many people may experience these symptoms at different times throughout the year, a person who is affected by SAD will experience these regularly every year. The time of onset and offset will be approximately the same; most people begin experiencing symptoms of this affective disorder around September or October, and may be feeling normal by April or May.

People who suspect that they may have SAD should consider seeking professional help from a counselor or a psychologist. This is especially true for patients who have felt depressed during season changes for at least two years in a row, and those that exhibit multiple symptoms. There are a few solutions for people who are affected by SAD; some of these therapies and solutions can help individuals feel renewed and happier in as little as two weeks.

A common treatment for patients with Seasonal Affective Disorder is phototherapy, or light therapy. This therapy is effective for the majority of patients, and is very simple to use. Some patients are prescribed Bright Light treatment; for this, a patient will set in from of a “light box” for half an hour or longer in the morning. Others are prescribed Dawn Simulation therapy; in this treatment, a dim light will come on while the patient sleeps and continue to get brighter over time. It is important for patients to use the light therapy each day until the season change. Patients who follow the procedures properly can feel less affected by SAD in approximately one week.

Other patients, those who experience severe symptoms, may also be prescribed antidepressants throughout the season. Patients are cautioned to use the medication as prescribed, and to continue the full treatment. Many doctors suggest that patients get regular exercise and remain active during daylight hours. Many patients also benefit from continued counseling throughout the winter months. This helps individuals to work through their depression, and find focus and coping methods to help them through the winter months.

If you, or someone you know, may be suffering the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, seeking professional help may be the best option. Depression is more than just a brief feeling of moodiness during the winter months. It can be managed and treated, so that you can enjoy your friends, family, and daily routine throughout the entire year.

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