December is Seasonal Depression Awareness Month, a time to learn about a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder and different ways to ease the of those impacted by this mental health condition. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is more than an experience of “winter blues.” Most commonly associated with fall and winter, SAD affects approximately 5% of the US population in any given year according to the nonprofit organization Mental Health America—that’s over 16.4 million Americans. SAD is more common in adults, especially those with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder; it also sometimes runs in families.
CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
Scientists don’t fully understand SAD and aren’t sure what causes it. The Mayo Clinic offers some insight as to causes and symptoms, stating that the three main causes are likely related to a disruption of the circadian rhythm (which often occurs when sunlight decreases during the winter), a decrease in serotonin levels (which is the neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood and emotions), or an imbalanced level of melatonin (which plays a role in sleep regulation).
Imbalanced melatonin is the most commonly attributed cause of SAD. Melatonin, the natural sleep hormone created in our bodies, is mainly triggered by light. When there is less light, it isn’t triggered to cease production as quickly as when more light is present. This leads to an overproduction of the hormone and results in a feeling of tiredness or fatigue that can last throughout a whole day.
SAD is not considered a separate disorder but is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. The symptoms of SAD include many of those associated with major depression and some more specific symptoms. Not every person with SAD will experience every symptom, but here is a list of some of them:
- Feeling depressed most of every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in appetite and/or weight
- Having disrupted sleep patterns
- Having low energy or feeling sluggish
- Feeling irritated or agitated
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicidal tendencies
- Overeating, which often results in weight gain
- Social withdrawal from friends and/or family
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
–GET IMMEDIATE HELP–
If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the toll-free TTY number at 1-800-799-4TTY (4889). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
If you think you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, consult with your medical provider or talk to a mental health specialist about your concerns. A physician or mental health provider might recommend that you monitor your carbohydrate/sugar intake, as well as your alcohol consumption, all of which should be limited and only enjoyed in moderation. He or she might also suggest that you get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day because time spent outdoors offers extra sunlight exposure that can help combat SAD. You and your healthcare providers can develop a treatment plan outside of these recommendations that includes one or a combination of medication and psychotherapy as warranted by your specific case, as well as possibly prescribing light therapy treatment.
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