Seasonal Affective Disorder: Just the Winter Blues?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that happens during a particular season, most often during the wintertime when there is a decrease in natural sunlight. Some research suggests that SAD is related to a chemical imbalance that occurs because of shorter daylight hours and less sunlight during the winter months. This does not mean that someone can’t have SAD during the summer; it is just not as common. Some people might dismiss SAD as just “the winter blues”, but it is not something to take lightly. Even though it doesn’t last all year, it can seriously affect your health and daily functioning.
Like other illnesses, everyone experiences it differently, but here are common symptoms:
Fatigue, being easily tired
Less active than before (or not at all)
Changes in weight and appetite (e.g. craving more carbohydrates)
Changes in mood (e.g. irritable, more sensitive, more easily upset)
Changes in sleep (sleeping too much or trouble sleeping)
Decreased concentration and difficulty making decisions
Loss of interest in activities
Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
Not taking care of responsibilities (e.g. housework)
Decrease in self-care (e.g. grooming, hygiene, eating)
Even though anyone can suffer from SAD, there are individuals who might be pre-disposed to an increased risk of experiencing SAD:
Women: Research shows that SAD is diagnosed four times more in women than in men.
Living far from the equator: If you live far North or South, you have more chances of suffering from SAD.
Family history: If people in your family have suffered from or currently experience SAD, your chance of having it yourself is higher.
Age: Younger people are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than older adults.
Is SAD treatable?
Yes! There are three different treatments that are common in treating SAD:
1. Medication: Usually, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed. This is because it is suggested that those experience SAD have irregular levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter associated with mood. The medication helps regulate the neurotransmitter levels. Note that it is important to talk to your doctor about side effects and how they can affect your body.
2. Light Therapy: This therapy has been used since the 1980s. Since there is less daylight and sunlight in the winter months, light therapy allows you to have more light in your life, and may relieve symptoms of SAD. The tool used is a light box, which emits an artificial light while filtering out harmful ultraviolet rays. The side effects are usually mild, but some people may experience nausea, headaches, or eyestrain. For that reason the light should be used only 20-60 minutes a day.
3. Psychotherapy: The type of therapy that seems to be most effective for those with SAD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Therapists have used techniques of CBT and created a new technique called Behavioural Activation (identifying activities that are pleasurable for the patient in order to better cope with the winter season).
What if I know someone who has SAD?
Even if you are not experiencing SAD, chances are you know someone who is. The best thing you can do is to be supportive. You can offer a listening ear (all the while not trying to “fix” their problems), encourage habits that can help with their recovery, visit them more often, or simply ask them how you can help.