Do the irregular warm weather days get you excited for summer, but leave you feeling sad or depressed that winter is still here and there are more cold days to come? For many people, Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, can be a serious issue to overcome every year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans while another 10 to 20 percent may have mild SAD. For most people, symptoms appear during late fall or early winter, draining your energy and making you feel lonely, sad, or sometimes angry. A smaller number of people experience symptoms in the spring or early summer.
Many people might feel blue around the winter holidays, or feel sad or disappointed after the festivities are over. While it’s normal to experience the “winter blues”, feeling sad, hopeless or lethargic for days or weeks at a time can be symptoms of something more serious, including depression. If this is happening to you, it’s important to seek professional help.
The specific causes of SAD are unknown, but there are several factors that may contribute to this seasonal disorder:
• Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
• Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
• Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Since SAD is a subtype of major depression, many people experience several of the same symptoms of major depression, including:
• Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
• Feeling hopeless or worthless
• Having low energy
• Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
• Having problems with sleeping
• Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
• Feeling sluggish or agitated
• Having difficulty concentrating
• Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Additionally, people tend to experience symptoms specific to the season in which they experience the SAD.
Winter-Onset SAD Symptoms:
• Tiredness or low energy
• Problems getting along with other people
• Hypersensitivity to rejection
• Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
• Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
• Weight gain
Summer-Onset SAD Symptoms:
• Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
• Weight loss
• Poor appetite
• Agitation or anxiety
In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. If you are experiences severe mood changes due to seasonal changes, it’s important to visit your health care provider to get an evaluation and choose the best treatment path for your specific needs. With the right diagnosis and treatment, you can be on your way to feeling better and appreciating the change in seasons.
Be sure to read next week’s blog on Coping with Seasonal Affect Disorder.