Healthy Living

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It starts during winter, usually stemming from a low amount of natural sunlight and is often lifted in the months of summer or spring. The symptoms often can begin in autumn as the days start getting shorter, and they are typically most severe during colder months such as December, January, and February.  It may occur yearly in a repetitive pattern. 

However, there are several cases in which some people begin to exhibit symptoms in spring or summer. In both seasonal patterns, symptoms may start out mild and become severe as the season progresses.  Symptoms of major depression may be a part of seasonal affective disorder as it is considered as a sub type.  

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According to MayoClinic, the symptoms of major depression associated with seasonal affective disorder are as follows:

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities the person once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicidal intentions

The symptoms specific to winter-onset seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Irritability
  • Tiredness or low energy
  • Problems getting along with other people
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection
  • Heavy, ‘leaden’ feeling in the arms or legs
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain  

The symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Agitation or anxiety 

Although the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is not yet known, the main theory is that the lack of sunlight might be preventing the hypothalamus from working properly, which has an impact on other bodily functions.  First, it affects the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes a person feel sleepy. In individuals with SAD, the body may produce it in higher levels. 

Second, it also affects production of serotonin, a hormone which is responsible for a person’s mood, appetite, and sleep. The lack of sunlight may lead to lower serotonin levels, which is linked to feelings of depression.  The lack of sunlight affects the body’s internal clock. 

Seasonal affective disorder has various available treatment programs that are recommended by a mental or medical health provider.  Main treatments include lifestyle measures, light therapy, talking therapies, and antidepressants.  Lifestyle measures include getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly, and managing personal stress levels.  Light therapy includes the use of a special lamp called a light box to stimulate the exposure to sunlight.  Talking therapies or suggested psychotherapies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or counseling.  Antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also used to treat this condition.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Understanding seasonal affective disorder can help the patient cope in a better manner. Understanding the symptoms, manifestations, and complications is essential.

Staying healthy can help prevent the onset of SAD. In this case, we are referring to physical and mental health, both of which are equally important. Moving out of the house, having a change in the environment, planning a short trip to somewhere warm, interacting with more people, and not confining yourself to boundaries are some of the ways that you can help yourself. Occasional lifestyle changes can work wonders for people suffering from SAD. However, resorting to alternative measures, such as drinking and smoking, can cause severe problems later on. Taking small steps right from the beginning is the best way to fight and overcome this condition before it starts dictating your life.

Dealing with the Disorder

Though there are obvious environmental factors, someone could be at a higher risk of being affected if there is family history of seasonal affective disorder. Apart from this, the levels of melatonin and serotonin in the body affect the condition to a larger extent. It is important to keep yourself motivated and happy despite the drop in sunlight.

When the weather is cloudy or gloomy, one tends to feel gloomy. This is understandable. In some cases, this feeling culminates into bigger problems if left unattended. Seeking medical care, counseling, and self-care can help in overcoming this situation to a great extent. Since it is an illness related to mood, don't let it grow into something bigger and scarier, thereby causing physical problems due to lack of mobility, less sun exposure, and confinement. Nothing is more crucial than mental health as it could lead to a collapse of physical health. 

Do not hesitate to explain the matter to those closest to you, and try dealing it in a positive manner. Staying in synchronization with your body, getting necessary help, taking medication on time, being active, and leading a normal life go a long way in keeping one healthy and free from ailments.

Knowing about this condition is vital, and confiding with loved ones is extremely important. So, do not be afraid to talk about it if you feel that something is not right.