For most people, the loss of daylight is not part of the holiday season that we look forward to.
After the time reset thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, many of us who traditionally work from 9 to 5 end our days by traveling home already in the dark, with the sun setting half an hour before sunrise.
Shorter days combined with longer, darker and often colder nights have understandably dampened the spirits of many, leaving us tired and longing for the milder days of spring and summer.
While feelings of exhaustion are certainly not uncommon in these times of rare sunlight, the mood swings go much further for the roughly 5% of the US population who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
Although this condition is quite prevalent, it comes with a variety of quite serious symptoms, many of which can lead to disruptions in relationships, work life and a person’s ability to function on a daily basis. Those who suspect or know they have SAD are encouraged to seek professional help, as this disorder has both life-changing consequences and many treatments to help alleviate symptoms.
Here are some things to keep in mind about the US.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
According to Kimberly E Kleinman, Senior psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. Most commonly associated with winter and fall, SAD generally occurs and ends around the same time each year for those affected.
“Most notably, people with SAD tend to experience mood swings and depression-like symptoms in the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight, and they usually improve by spring,” Kleinman told USA TODAY. “It is important to note that it is possible to have SAD in the summer, but it is far less common.”
Shorter days and less sunlight are believed to cause chemical changes in the brain, including increased production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which has been linked to symptoms of depression.
SAD is a subcategory of depressive disorders, meaning that the symptoms of seasonal depression generally align with those under the broader umbrella of depression. The disorder, however, is more than just the “winter blues,” and is a persistent and consistent form of clinical depression that occurs every year during the season.
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Who experiences SAD and what causes it?
There is no universally agreed upon definitive cause of US. However, it is estimated 10 million Americans get sick from USA every year, and women are four times more likely than men to receive a formal diagnosis of SAD. Younger people, generally between the ages of 20 and 30, are also more likely to be recognized as having SAD.
“Although it is not fully understood what causes SAD, less sunlight and shorter days are thought to be related to chemical changes in the brain, primarily serotonin and melatonin,” Kleinman said. “Research shows that people with SAD can have reduced activity of serotonin, which helps regulate mood. It can also be caused by too much melatonin, which causes sleepiness. The body naturally produces more melatonin when it’s dark – when the days are shorter and darker, it creates more melatonin.”
While there is no complete answer, some common contributing factors are thought to exist, including:
- Low vitamin D it can occur when someone does not get enough vitamins through diet or exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is a factor in the production of serotonin, one of the “happy” chemicals in the brain.
- Pre-existing mental health conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or other mood disorders. These may be exacerbated by US-related factors.
- Family history and genetic factors they can play separately. As with many other mental health disorders, having family members who also suffer from depression and/or SAD can mean that you are more likely to experience these and similar conditions.
- Environmental factors such as living further from the equator where sunlight is dramatically reduced in winter can increase the occurrence of US.
- Age and gender are relevant to the rate of diagnosis. Women and young adults are more likely to be identified as having SAD.
- Chemical levels inside our body they help determine our mood. Too much or too little melatonin (the sleep chemical) and serotonin (the mood chemical) can have a dramatic effect on how we feel. In winter, the lack of sunlight can affect their production.
- Disruptions to your biological clock or your circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep, can cause you to feel tired and in a bad mood. Because our bodies receive cues from the environment to determine our sleep-wake cycles, the amount of sunlight we are exposed to affects our internal clock.
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Symptoms of USA
The symptoms of SAD overlap with other forms of depression and a number of other mental health conditions, meaning that a professional diagnosis is needed to definitively determine whether a person is suffering from seasonal depression.
The most common symptoms return and then improve around the same time each year.
- Feeling sluggish, tired or lacking energy during the day.
- Increased need for sleep or sleeping longer and more often than usual.
- Feeling sad or depressed most days.
- Loss of interest and pleasure in activities you usually enjoy.
- Social withdrawal and isolation, increased irritability and anxiety.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness.
- Decreased sex drive.
- Reduced ability to focus or concentrate, problems thinking clearly.
- Increased appetite, especially for sweets and carbohydrates.
- Weight gain.
- Headaches, aches and other physical symptoms.
- In the case of spring or summer depression, the symptoms can be reversed in the form of insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss.
Depression can affect many aspects of a person’s life, leading to consequences such as social withdrawal and strained relationships, problems functioning at school or work, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, impulsive decision-making, self-medication through substance abuse, and the onset or worsening of other mental illnesses health problems.
“Like all forms of depression, SAD can be associated with more serious symptoms such as frequent (almost daily) thoughts of worthlessness, guilt, and depressed mood,” Kleinman said. “Depression can also be associated with recurrent thoughts of death, suicide or self-harm.”
If you experience any of these symptoms, Kleinman urged, see your doctor immediately, visit your local emergency room or call 988 Lifeline for 24/7, free and confidential support and crisis resources.
Treatment of seasonal depression
As with other forms of depression, there is no single definitive “cure” or treatment for SAD. Getting help for any mental health problem generally involves consulting with your care team to determine what combination of treatment and support solutions is best for you.
“If someone suspects they may be affected by US, I recommend that they see a health care provider to be evaluated,” Kleinman said. “The provider will be able to understand the patient’s medical history and personalize the treatment plan to best meet the individual’s needs…it is important to note that usually a combination of treatments is most effective.”
Symptom management will look different from individual to individual, but there are several interventions that are commonly used to treatment of patients with SAD:
- Psychotherapy including commonly used forms of “talk therapy” such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people better understand and manage their seasonal depression. Therapists can guide patients in identifying stressors, developing coping skills, and managing their symptoms.
- Medicines is a common way to treat symptoms associated with chemical imbalances. Antidepressants can help elevate mood, reduce anxiety, and correct the biological causes of depression.
- Light therapy is commonly used because increased light exposure is a natural treatment for AS. Exposure to sunlight provides the necessary vitamins and signals our bodies use to determine things like sleep-wake cycles. When the natural source of life is not sufficient, lamps made especially for the treatment of USA are often introduced. These lamps or boxes are designed to allow access to bright light while limiting UV exposure.
“SAD is more than the ‘winter blues,’ it’s technically a diagnosis of seasonal pattern depression,” advises Kleinman. “It can be distressing and overwhelming and interfere with patients’ daily functions. If you’re experiencing SAD, you don’t have to suffer through the winter seasons without support.”
Tips for fighting the USA
- Write that sunlight as much as possible. While the shorter days of winter may leave limited time outside of work and school hours to enjoy the outdoors, it’s important to take every opportunity to get out there and enjoy the real thing. Whether it’s through a daily walk, winter sports, or even sitting by a window, just exposure to the sun can help.
- Pay attention to your diet, especially during the cold months when our bodies are tempted to load up on carbs and other heavy foods. A healthy, well-balanced and proportionately appropriate diet plays an important role in overall energy and well-being.
- Stay active and try not to stay cooped up inside all winter. Regular exercise has long been recognized as an effective means of reducing depression symptoms. Moving the body outside the home has been linked to several mental health benefits.
- Stay engaged and avoid the temptation of self-isolation. Stay in close touch and spend time with family and friends, sign up for activities in your community, get out of the house and socialize with other people. Staying involved and socially engaged helps with feelings of loneliness and despair.
- Avoid complicating factors such as drugs and alcohol. Although it is common for people to turn to self-medication, the use of such substances has been shown to worsen depression and potentially cause further problems.
- Be conscious your mental health and know that you don’t have to ignore or suffer from feelings of depression. If you’re struggling, don’t just write it off. If you have already started treatment, understand that feeling better is a process.