Shining a Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 2018 ushered in some of the coldest weather on record – 90 continuous hours of sub-zero temperatures. Couple that with short days and long nights, and anyone from children to adults can find themselves with seasonal affective disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Anyone can be affected by it as more children and teens are reporting experiencing SAD symptoms.

SAD is not a separate form of depression; instead, it is a type of major depression that manifests during the seasons. The symptoms of major depression include:

  • 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 sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

If you notice the following symptoms in winter, you may have the winter pattern of SAD:

  • Low energy
  • Hypersomnia (sleepy all the time, sleeping long hours or able to fall asleep anytime, even while driving)
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for carbohydrates
  • Social withdrawal

According to NIMH, there are certain risk factors for SAD that can increase your chances of having it. These include:

  • Being female. SAD is diagnosed four timesmore often in women than men.
  • Living far from the equator. SAD is more frequent in people who live far north or south of the equator. For example, one percent of those who live in Florida and nine percent of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD.
  • Family history. People with a family history of other types of depression are more likely to develop SAD than people who do not have a family history of depression.
  • Having depression or bipolar disorder. The symptoms of depression may worsen with the seasons if you have one of these conditions (but SAD is diagnosed only if seasonal depressions are the most common).
  • Younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults, and SAD has been reported even in children and teens.

How can you treat SAD? After you talk with a healthcare professional about your symptoms and she or he diagnoses you with SAD, there are some ways to combat it. Those include:

  • Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which is a common depression medication that enhances the function of your brain’s nerve cells that regulate emotion.
  • Light therapy, which replaces the amount of natural sunlight lacking in the autumn and winter months. According to NIMH, light therapy administers bright, artificial light to increase the amount of daily exposure a person with SAD receives. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning each day during the early fall until spring. Most typically, light boxes filter out the ultraviolet rays and require 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, an amount that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.
  • Psychotherapy, which helps the person with SAD identify her or his sad thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.
  • Vitamin D, which helps regulate the messages nerves receive from the brain and deliver to the body. Vitamin D also fortifies the immune system so the body can combat bacteria and viruses that can cause illness.

If these freezing days and long nights are making you feel sadder than you remember feeling before, contact your doctor for a check-up. If you notice your child or teenager is having a trying time during the autumn or winter months, you can contact any Methodist Health Foundation Counseling Clinic at info@methodistfamily.org for an assessment and guidance.