Will you be feeling SAD this winter?

By: Christi Sabin

Photo by chop1n, obtained from Flickr under Creative Commons license.

Photo by chop1n, obtained from Flickr under Creative Commons license.

The days are getting shorter, and there’s a chill in the air, signs that winter is well on its way. While some people may feel a bit bummed-out that the summer is now behind them, for others, it’s much more than a yearning for one last trip to the beach. For some, the colder season can mean a time of drastic emotional changes that they just can’t seem to shake. It could be more than just a case of the ‘winter blues’, in reality, this could mean that they may be experiencing what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What exactly is SAD, and what are the symptoms?

SAD is a depressive disorder that is recurring in individuals mostly in the fall and winter, although occasionally it can be the warmer season that triggers the symptoms. The symptoms are similar to those of other depressive disorders, including fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities, irritability, and overeating or oversleeping. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5th Edition (DSM-V) the following criteria constitutes a possible diagnosis of SAD: depressive episodes recurring at certain times of the year, if two major depressive episodes have occurred in the last 2 years with no nonseasonal episodes at other times of the year, or if seasonal major depressive episodes significantly outweigh the number of nonseasonal episodes during the course of a person’s life. These criteria are listed as a specifier for depressive disorders, rather than a separate diagnosis, meaning that a person will be demonstrating the symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), but they do not fully meet the criteria, so it would be diagnosed as MDD ‘with seasonal pattern’.

What causes SAD?

The lack of light experienced in the shorter days is thought to affect the levels of melatonin in the body, which regulates our sleep patterns. The idea has also been postulated that the human body responds to the changing of the seasons as the rest of nature does, but that society expects us to stay active, which causes feelings of guilt, which can then manifest into feelings of depression.

Who is affected by SAD?

SAD can affect anyone at any time in their life, although there are certain individuals who may be at a higher risk. More women than men experience SAD. It is also more common in younger people, including children, adolescents, and young adults. People living at higher latitudes also have increased risk. People with a family history of mental health disorders are also at an increased risk. Overall, approximately half a million Americans have SAD.

How do I know if I have SAD?

If you have these symptoms during more than just a certain time of year, it could be due to another underlying mental health disorder, such as MDD. There could also potentially be a physical cause of the symptoms, so also check with your physician to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for your symptoms. Also, if your symptoms are the result of something circumstantial that happens to you at a certain time of year, this could also be the cause. It is recommended that you consult with your physician or a mental health professional to get a proper diagnosis.

What are the treatment options for SAD?

Light therapy has become a popular way of treating the effects of SAD. A special light box is used by the individual for about 30 minutes per day, and the recommended intensity of light is 10,000 lux. Another helpful technique is negative ion therapy, which can also be found in some light boxes so that you get a combined effect, such as this one from Amazon: NatureBright-SunTouch-Plus-Light-Therapy. Seeking treatment with a therapist may also be beneficial. Medication is a potential option as well. Various natural remedies can be useful, including herbs such as St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba, and Siberian ginseng; as well as vitamin supplements such as B-vitamins, L-tyrosine, and zinc. Any combination of these options could help alleviate the symptoms of SAD, however It is recommended that you consult your physician or a mental health professional before starting any type of treatment plan.

Resources:

GMU Fairfax Campus Counseling and Psychological Services Center: 703-993-2380

Suicide Hotlines:

National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-899-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

References:

American Psychological Association. (2006). Bright Lights, Big Relief. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/research/action/light.aspx

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental  Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

DeAngelis, T. (2006, February). Promising new treatments for SAD. Monitor on Psychology, 37(2), Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb06/sad.aspx

Balch, J.F., & Balch, P.A. (1997). Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Second Edition. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group.

Blaszczak, J.  (2005). 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 10, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-things-you-dont-know-about-seasonal-affective-disorder/0002

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2004). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/Seasonal_Affective_Disorder_%28SAD%29.htm 

National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institute of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2013). Seasonal affective disorder. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002499/

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