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Better Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter blues may seem like an excuse many use when they’re feeling down, but experiencing this kind of sadness during the cooler months is actually an accepted phenomenon. This winter depression is actually called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and is tied to the changes in seasons.

Although most prevalent during the onset of autumn and winter, for some it can continue into spring and early summer. Because some may not be aware of the seasonal affective disorder, Team Med describe symptoms and remedies in this blog.

Why seasonal affective disorder occurs and factors that increase chances of experiencing SAD

Seasonal affective disorder is a particularly interesting mood disorder as it occurs in people who otherwise have regular mental health throughout the year. It is still disputed why SAD occurs in many people. Some theories demonstrate a lack of serotonin production being the cause of the depression, while others demonstrate increased production of melatonin due to the lack of sunlight in winter months as being responsible for the lethargy commonly associated with SAD.

There are some factors that can increase the risk of experiencing seasonal affective disorder. Those with a family history of relatives being diagnosed with depression or SAD may be more likely to experience the disorder themselves. If you have depression or bipolar disorder, the symptoms of depression may further worsen seasonally.

There is also a correlation between distance to the equator and SAD. Evidence suggests that seasonal affective disorder is more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This is exemplified by instances of SAD in the United States, where the disorder affected 1.4% of the population in Florida compared to 9.9% of the population up north in Alaska.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder

Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression. Sufferers may therefore experience a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, aversion to social interaction, sleep and appetite problems, concentration difficulties and making decisions, decreased libido, a lack of energy, or feelings of agitation.

There are also symptoms that are unique to specific seasonal times. Symptoms associated with winter-onset SAD can include oversleeping, changes in appetite, weight gain, and lethargy. Spring and summer-onset SAD, on the other hand, may cause insomnia, weight loss, anxiety and agitation. These seasonal differences can translate to those with bipolar disorder, where winter may bring on depression and spring and summer can induce mania.  

Remedies to manage seasonal affective disorder

Because seasonal affective disorder is related to the change in seasons, there are ways to manage it effectively. Treatments can be based around phototherapy, medications or psychotherapy depending on the case and the individual. Self maintenance like exercise and meditation can also prove highly useful in managing SAD.

Light therapy (phototherapy) is one of the primary treatments of SAD. Bright lights mimic the effects of the sun, which allows for decreased melatonin production and increases in chemicals that promote more positive moods. Because it is not an intensive treatment, light therapy doesn’t cause many side effects, although repeated use of light sources can increase potential for skin cancer.

Antidepressants, such as SSRIs, can also be used to successfully treat SAD, although are commonly prescribed when symptoms are severe.

Psychotherapy can also help sufferers of SAD positively approach negative thoughts and behaviours which can lead to the development of healthy coping mechanisms and stress management.

When to consult your doctor

Feeling down, especially in winter, is not an unusual occurrence. When this feeling is drawn out for many days and your motivation lessens and lethargy increases, it is worth taking the time to see your doctor.

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