What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 5 Things To Know About The 'Winter Blues'

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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? Causes, Symptoms & Treatments Of The 'Winter Blues'
Self, Health And Wellness

They call it SAD for good reason.

As we move toward the end of the Fall months, the days getting shorter and the temperature starting to fall, you might be frustrated as you find yourself working hard to resist surrendering to a debilitating type of sadness you don't normally experience.

Normally, you feel perfectly fine, so when struck by deepening levels of depression, you may understandably be wondering what could possibly going on.

It's possible you could be experiencing what some people shrug off as the "winter blues", but is actually a type of clinical depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

What is seasonal affective disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic's definition, "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer."

RELATED: 8 Ways To Fight Seasonal Depression (When Winter Blues Have You Feeling Sad)

Research indicates that "Seasonal affective disorder occurs four times more often in women than in men and the age of onset is estimated to be between 18 and 30 years," although it should be noted that, "Pinpointing prevalence is difficult as the disorder may go unreported and consequently under-diagnosed."

Additional risk factors for SAD include family history, a clinical history of major depression or bipolar depression and living farther from the equator.

If you aren’t feeling yourself these days and think SAD might be the cause, here are 5 things to know about the symptoms, risk factors, treatments and how the holidays come into play.

1. What causes SAD to occur?

While doctors are not sure why SAD occurs, they do have some theories.

The first reason is that as the days get shorter our circadian rhythm, our bodies internal clock, gets thrown off and we don’t sleep as well and our bodies don’t function optimally. This can lead to depression. Furthermore, the reduced amount of bright sunlight can drop our levels of serotonin and dopamine which often leads to depression. And finally, the seasonal shift may also cause an imbalance in melatonin levels, having a negative affect on sleep and mood.

For me, when fall arrives I start getting cold. I feel like the work because my body works so hard to stay warm it has a harder time regulating my moods. I can actually feel the change in my body and it can be scary.

Regardless of the specific cause, it's important to remember that SAD is not your fault. You aren’t weak because you might be suffering. It is happening because of forces outside of yourself.

2. What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are similar to those of other types of depression, except that rather than enduring them year-round, the occurrence for people with SAD typical begins and ends around the same time every year.

include:

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Having little or no energy
  • Feeling hopeless, anxious or irritable
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Having frequent thoughts of suicide

SAD is often thought of as a depression that occurs only when fall turns to winter, but it can also occurs during spring and summer. Again, the changes in our bodies' circadian rhythm as the days get longer are believed to lead to a shift in our body chemistry.

Symptoms for spring or summer onset SAD are similar to those of fall or winter onset SAD, although oversleeping is more common in winter, whereas insomnia is more common in summer. It’s almost like the body is being recharged after a long winter sleep and it has trouble adjusting to that charge.

For me, spring is by far the worst time. For many people like myself who live with bipolar disorder, spring SAD can bring on feelings of mania.

Think of the energizer bunny. That’s me.

RELATED: 6 Small-But-Powerful Changes To Help You Fight The Wintertime Blues

3. What are the treatment options?

Fortunately, many cases of SAD can be treated without medication.

Light therapy is one of the most well known treatment methods, and there are specific lamps available for this purpose.

For me, when I feel my fall SAD coming on, I pull out my light box. My light box is a box that emits natural light that mimics the sun. Authentic sunshine can be very rare in New England and my light box gives me access to it on demand.

Every morning, when I am eating breakfast, I spend time in front of my light box. Even a small amount of time can help raise serotonin and dopamine levels in my body which can really help with my SAD depression.

Another thing that really helped me was when I started taking Vitamin D supplements.

The best sources of Vitamin D for humans is sunshine and vitamin D fortified milk. Because I don’t drink milk and my sun exposure is limited in the winter, taking Vitamin D helps protect my body from serotonin and dopamine loss. Vitamin D helps keep me from being overwhelmed by my SAD depression.

And finally, the thing that can help every kind of depression, especially SAD, is exercise.

Nothing raises the body’s levels of serotonin quite like exercise. So, if you are struggling with SAD, getting off the couch and out for a walk is the best thing that you can do.

4. How do the holidays come into play?

For many people, the holiday season is a very difficult time. For people struggling with SAD, it can be even harder.

The reason that the holidays are so much harder is that women living with SAD are already struggling with sadness and succumbing to the pressures and expectations of the holidays is way more likely.

So, if you are already working hard to manage your SAD, make an effort to take care of yourself during the holiday season.

For me, this year I was invited to my father’s house for Thanksgiving. As much as I wanted to see my dad, I knew that my stepmother would go out of her way to make my life miserable, as she always does. And I knew that if I put myself through that my SAD could very easily get worse.

So, I am staying home for Thanksgiving. And going to Mexico for Christmas for a little sunshine to get me through the long New England winter.

What can you do to make your holidays just a little bit easier?

5. Why is getting help so important?

While there are natural ways to treat SAD, for some women, they just don’t work.

If you find that your SAD depression is getting the way of you living your life, if it is interfering with your work or your relationships, I strongly encourage you to seek treatment.

Make an appointment with your primary care physician immediately and discuss with her how to best management your depression.

The good news is is that SAD often passes as the winter and summer become the norm so chemical management of the depression might be short lived.

SAD is not something to be taken lightly. It is a form of depression that can have debilitating effects on your work and your life

Fortunately, SAD is fairly easy to diagnose and treat. Take a look at the list above. Is this you? Awareness is a key step to figuring out what is going on with your moods and getting better.

You can do it! You will be glad you did.

RELATED: The 6 Types Of Depression (And How You Can Tell The Difference)

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Mitzi Bockmann is an NYC-based Certified Life Coach and mental health advocate, who works exclusively with women to help them be all they want to be in this crazy world in which we live. For more, email her or read her writing, which has been published on The Huffington Post, Prevention, Psych Central, Pop Sugar, MSN and The Good Man Project, among others.

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