During the winter months, the shorter days and longer dark periods of night leave some feeling of the winter blues. Some think they are just feeling down because of depression related to the holidays, which aren’t always jolly for everyone.
Other people think this feeling is a result of not being able to be as physically active during the cold winter months. However, it is a very real condition that leaves people feeling depressed. Discover more about Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Often referred to as SAD, the seasonal affective disorder is seasonal depression. It can occur during any of the seasons. However, according to the National Institute of Health, SAD usually strikes individuals during the winter months due to the lack of sunlight and decreased social and physical activity.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
The winter blues are characterized by a serious mood change by individuals who sleep too much while experiencing a lack of energy. As a result, the person may feel depressed and unable to cope with everyday circumstances.
SAD symptoms begin at the end of fall and escalate throughout the winter months, peaking by January when the weather is coldest around the nation. This also correlates with the end of the holiday season, which some see as the end of the happiest time of year. The sudden lack of social activities and festivities can increase feelings of isolation, especially for those living in rural or cold climates.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder
For individuals who experience SAD in the winter, the Mayo Clinic suggests that it has something to do with a lack of sunlight and exposure to daylight hours. According to their studies, SAD is related to a chemical imbalance in the brain. The imbalance stems from a shorter number of hours of daylight.
This is commonly the situation for most people around the world during the winter months when the days are shorter due to the earth’s rotation. This is also what causes countries to have winter weather of colder temperatures, snow, and ice. The changes in sunlight affect the seasonal activities of all animals and mammals, including humans.
The main effect of this change of season for humans is the change in the amount of light we get. As a result, individuals’ circadian rhythm, also known as the internal biological clock, is out of whack with their routine, creating an inability to sleep and work regularly.
Another effect of this change of routine is related to melatonin, which is called the sleep hormone. Those who experience depression are more likely to have fluctuations in melatonin production. For example, in the times of darkness, such as during winter months or due to a lack of light, melatonin is produced more frequently.
While melatonin can help individuals sleep better at night, having this hormone produced throughout the waking hours causes sluggishness, sleepiness, and a general feeling of lethargy. These are all symptoms of depression, as well as seasonal affective disorder. To remedy this situation, the use of bright lights has been shown to affect those experiencing SAD positively.
Who is Likely to Have SAD?
According to WebMD, SAD is more common in certain individuals than others. For instance, those female individuals are more likely to experience this form of depression compared to males. This may be related to the hormonal fluctuations of females due to their menstrual cycle, which could create times of moodiness that could stem from SAD.
In addition, individuals who live the furthest away from the equator, such as those in the northernmost and southernmost parts of the globe, the Falkland Islands, Russia, and Alaska, are more likely to have the seasonal affective disorder. These countries have the shortest amount of sunlight, and their days are super short. As a result, these individuals experience great darkness and a lack of naturally developed vitamin D.
Age is a factor, as well, with SAD seasonal affective disorder. In their teens, those individuals are most likely to experience SAD for the first time during this age period. As people get older, their chance of experiencing seasonal affective disorder for the first time decreases with each year. However, those who get SAD will do so, most commonly from 15 to 55. If you live with someone who has a seasonal affective disorder, you will most likely experience it.
Other symptoms of SAD include:
- A general feeling of hopelessness marked by a lack of optimism
- Weight gain due to an increased appetite, which the overabundance of holiday treats can compound during the winter season
- Adversely, some experience weight loss due to a lack of appetite related to this form of depression.
- Sleeping too much to the point where it affects the individual’s routine and leaves them in a mental fog when they are awake
- A lack of sleep due to anxiety, nervousness, and worrying about things
- A lack of energy leaves the individual unable to concentrate on everyday tasks.
- A lack of interest in activities, hobbies, work-related tasks, or family time
- Being sluggish in their movements is often related to overeating and oversleeping.
- Being socially withdrawn or unable to meet social commitments due to feelings of depression or anxiety
- Having a marked level of irritability or unhappiness that is more so than normal
The seasonal affective disorder symptoms can lead to long-term depression extending past the winter months. For some, SAD will strike in both winter and summer months, and it can develop or is related to an existing bipolar disorder. The key for those individuals who experience SAD in these seasons annually is to visit a medical professional who can help them regulate the condition to avoid even more issues. For some, SAD can lead to thoughts and actions of suicide.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment
Fortunately, several treatments for a seasonal affective disorder range from things you can do at home to seeing a professional. One of the most common ways to treat this type of depression is to purchase a seasonal affective disorder lamp.
Using seasonal affective disorder lights allows the affected individual to decrease the amount of melatonin produced during waking hours. For individuals who have trouble staying awake or experiencing mental fog, leaving them depressed and inattentive, these lamps can create a positive environment.
Some colleges and hospitals use this type of lighting to increase energy levels and boost the moods of students and patients, respectively. Thanks to the popularity of the seasonal affective disorder light, you can find these everywhere, from department stores to public buildings accessible by many individuals.
For example, at the University of Washington, entire study halls are fitted with overhead seasonal affective disorder lights. To use this type of light therapy, which is often made using specialized fluorescent lamps, the individual treated for SAD should expose themselves to the light for 30 to 90 minutes every day during the winter months.
This form of therapy involves exposure to very bright light (usually from a special fluorescent lamp) between 30 and 90 minutes a day during the winter. Additional relief has been found with psychotherapy sessions and, in some cases, the prescription of antidepressants.
Other treatments for SAD include:
- Spending as much time outdoors during the daylight hours; bundling up during cold weather helps but having at least 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight per day is a mood booster.
- Finding a counselor or therapist can be beneficial to those individuals dealing with seasonal affective disorder, such as through psychotherapy sessions.
- Prescribed antidepressants can help individuals diagnosed with SAD due to a biological chemical imbalance that is brought on seasonally; for those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, this type of treatment can bring about the quickest and most effective form of treatment change for the better.
Suppose you or someone whom you know is experiencing seasonal affective disorder. In that case, you can help them to understand by sharing information about causes, symptoms, and treatments for their situation. SAD is a commonplace occurrence during the winter season especially. Find encouragement through SAD support groups or by discussing the condition openly, which will help you find others experiencing the same symptoms for social support.
Knowledge is a Key to Change
The sooner you or a loved one understands why you are feeling the way you are during the winter season, the earlier you will be able to work on a treatment plan. Understanding why you feel the winter blues, depression, or anxiety can help relieve some of the symptoms. Additionally, you can discover how you can improve your situation by empowering yourself with the knowledge and understanding of the very real issue of seasonal affective disorder.