For many people in the United States, the fall and winter seasons bring more than just shorter days, colder weather, and warm holidays spent with friends and family. This time of year also brings the effects of seasonal depression.
While this seasonal depression – sometimes known as the winter blues – isn’t serious for many of the individuals who suffer its effects, for some it can mean days and even weeks of depression, fatigue, changes on eating and sleeping habits, and an overall loss of energy. The persistent recurrence of these symptoms each year is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Unfortunately, precise figures regarding the number of American who suffer from SAD are difficult to come by, as many don’t find the symptoms severe enough to report. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that around half a million people in the U.S. suffer winter-onset depression while other professional organizations put the figure at around five percent of the population, or around fifteen million people. Despite these variations, statistics seem to confirm that women are more likely than men to experience the effects of SAD and the risk increases with age.
Do You Have the Winter Blues or Are You Feeling SAD?
If you’ve got a case of the winter blues but aren’t sure if you’ve got Seasonal Affective Disorder, you needn’t worry… you’re not alone! In fact, most people suffering from SAD fail to realize the nature of the difficulties they’re experiencing.
People with SAD usually begin feeling less motivated and more tired and depressed than normal as they are deprived of sunlight during the shorter days of the fall and winter months. Changes in sleeping patterns are usually among the first overt symptoms, as SAD sufferers commonly find it more difficult to wake up and feel tired and listless throughout the day.
In addition to changes in sleeping habits, Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers also commonly experience a lack of energy and motivation. This decreased motivation is compounded by feeling tired and listless and often causes people with SAD to have difficulties focusing and keeping up with and completing their day-to-day responsibilities.
Another common symptom experienced by people suffering from SAD is an inexplicable craving for food – especially for foods high in carbohydrates.
Other symptoms of SAD include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Increased anxiety
- Weight gain
- Self-imposed isolation
- An increased sensitivity to social rejection
- Loss of interest in activities that once brought joy
While not every individual with SAD will experience all of these symptoms, the inability to understand the cause of these symptoms, as well as the symptoms themselves, can lead to depression.
For some this depression is very mild, for others it can be a life-changing experience.
Can Seasonal Affective Disorder be Treated?
Is there any hope for people suffering from SAD, or do they just have to bear with their depression and wait for spring to begin feeling better again?
In order to effectively treat depression or any other condition, it’s usually helpful to know something about the cause of the problem. Unfortunately, while studies have revealed that a combination of factors such as a decrease in serotonin and fluctuating melatonin levels may contribute to winter depression, the exact cause or causes of SAD are unknown.
That having been said, as SAD seems to be caused by chemical changes in the body in response to a lack of sunlight, light therapy is often the treatment of choice for those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Typically light therapy treatment to alleviate the symptoms of SAD involves at least 30 minutes of daily exposure to a 10,000 lux or stronger light.
Can SAD Be Prevented?
While there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether or not SAD can be prevented – outside of relocating to the tropics or spending your winters somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere – there are steps you can take to minimize the impact of SAD:
- Eat right – Making sure your body gets all of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs will go a long way in helping to minimize SAD’s symptoms and make you feel better.
- Exercise regularly – Regular exercise can help you reduce the anxiety and stress that contribute to, and exacerbate, SAD. Exercising will make you feel better about yourself and help you cope with any SAD symptoms that do occur.
- Take any opportunity to get some sun – Although light therapy can help, nothing is better than fresh air and natural sunlight. If you’ve been diagnosed with SAD, take every advantage you can of any sunny days to go outside and enjoy!
While SAD may not be preventable, there’s no reason for you to suffer until spring. If you recognize the symptoms of SAD, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional, seek treatment, and make any necessary lifestyle changes so you can enjoy every season and feel your best the whole year through.
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