Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out therapy at home.
When freezing temperatures make it too cold to go outside and rapidly darkening skies make the commute home dreary, we can easily find ourselves feeling sluggish or gloomy.
Happily, this kind of seasonal funk is usually easily cured with a bit of physical activity. By building a snowman, taking a kickboxing class, or even just dancing around the kitchen, we can stimulate brain chemicals that boost our moods and energy levels.
But for the many Americans suffering from a more serious form of seasonal blues, the cure is not always as simple. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects more than 10 million Americans, with another two million suffering from a milder form of the disorder. Individuals with SAD suffer depression during the same season each year—usually the fall or winter. SAD is believed to be caused by a lack of sunlight, which can have a negative impact on serotonin, a brain chemical that affects your mood.
How do you know if you suffer from SAD?
Anyone can suffer from SAD, but it most commonly develops in people who live father from the equator. In Fairbanks, Alaska, as many as 9.2 percent of the population suffers from SAD, compared to 1.4 percent in Sarasota, Florida. The majority of SAD sufferers are women, though symptoms are often more severe for men. SAD often runs in families, and is prevalent in families with histories of depressive disorders and alcohol abuse. SAD usually begins developing around age 20.
Of course, it’s normal to feel a lack of energy during colder seasons—experts believe that many people associate fall and winter with negative experiences, or memories of having to limit physical activity. This milder form of seasonal sadness is called the winter blues, and can be cured by physical activity, a cup of hot cocoa, or a crackling fire.
SAD, on the other hand, is more persistent. For individuals with SAD, depressive episodes start and end at the same time each year, and cannot be chased away with activities that normally cheer them up.
Symptoms of a SAD episode may include:
One of the most common symptoms of SAD is a feeling of sadness or hopelessness. People with SAD often lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. In some cases, they experience suicidal thoughts.
Individuals with SAD may find themselves sleeping more than usual. Despite this, they may often remain tired.
Inability to concentrate
SAD can impact how your brain works, sometimes affecting your concentration, memory, and ability to talk. SAD sufferers often find themselves easily distracted, and may struggle to remember important dates and tasks.
People with SAD are often easily irritated or angered, even more so than people with non-seasonal depression. Many SAD sufferers experience sudden outbursts of anger for no apparent reason.
Change in sex drive
People who experience SAD in the fall and winter often feel a decreased sex drive, while those who undergo episodes during the spring and summer tend to witness a heightened sex drive.
SAD sufferers often experience cravings for sweets and carbohydrates. Such foods can result in a temporary boost in serotonin levels, which improves mood. Because of this, people often gain a significant amount of weight during SAD episodes.
If you think you may have SAD…
Feeling sad is a normal part of being a compassionate human. But if you feel sad, irritable, or anxious for days at a time and aren’t motivated to do activities you normally look forward to, you may have SAD and should seek treatment. This is particularly crucial if your eating or sleeping patterns have changed or if you feel desperate or suicidal.
Many people with SAD neglect to seek treatment because they see it as a sign of weakness. But it’s important to remember that SAD is a genuine medical condition that can be combated with appropriate treatment.
Over 80 percent of SAD patients have reported to experiencing benefits from phototherapy—a treatment that involves exposing patients to natural or artificial light for a period of time each day. Other effective treatments include therapy and medication.
For more information on Seasonal Affective Disorder, check out this guide from Yellowbrick.
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Author: Matt Zajechowski
Editor: Renée Picard
Images: Infographic from Yellowbrick / via the author; Photo Mitya Ku at Flickr
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