Feeling SAD: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It's normal to experience some "winter blues" in the darker months: many of us feel tired, sleepy, and hungry all the time. However, for some people the problem is very serious - so serious that it is classified as a separate disorder

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When winter blues gets bad

SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, was first identified as a separate psychological issue circa 30 years ago. According to statistics, 5% of people suffer from a serious form of SAD that disrupts their daily activities and can even drive one to suidide, and 15% have its mild form – nothing life-threatening but very unpleasant none the less (more statistics here). Normally SAD occurs in winter (though some people suffer in summer), and its symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, lack of desire to do anything
  • Absence of interest in social activities, going out, etc.
  • Sadness, sometimes suicidal thoughts
  • Heightened emotional sensitivity
  • Sleepiness, lethargy
  • Constant snacking, binge eating, cravings for sweets, cakes, and junk food
  • Lack of focus
  • Low libido.

When diagnosing SAD, one should keep in mind that many of these symptoms can be caused by other illnesses, such as thyroid problems and mononucleosis. Another thing to note is that a person is only considered to suffer from SAD when the symptoms persist for two years or more in the same season and become better as spring comes.

Is daylight the culprit?

SAD is traditionally associated with the lack of sunlight in winter, but the actual mechanismj is unclear:

  • One version is that seasonal depression is caused by the disbalance in the hormone melatonin, produced by the pineal gland; this hormone regulates our rhythms of wakefulness and sleep.
  • Another idea is that daylight deficiency reduces the production of neurotransmitter serotonin.
  • Yet another hypothesis states that it’s the lack of vitamin D that causes depression.

However, some recent studies doubt that SAD is due to winter darkness: researchers haven’t found elevated rates of depression in regions with longer, darker winters, such as Scandinavia.

What’s more, some claim that SAD doesn’t really exist and that depressed people remain depressed in any season (details here).

Alleviating the symptoms

If you feel depressed and sad in winter, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Spend as much time as possible outside, do winter sports;
  2. Work next to a window;
  3. Use a light box – it’s a special light therapy device that imitates sunlight but without the harmful UV rays; you need to use it for circa an hour a day.
  4. Reserve some pleasant experience for winter – a tropical vacation, going to the movies and restaurants you like most;
  5. Spend time in brightly lit, cheerful places, such as cafes;
  6. Choose cheerful light fixtures for your home, stick to bright and light colors in interior design.

For those with serious SAD

If your symptoms are really bad – that is, if you suffer from a major depresion disorder that is expressed seasonally – then you will need much more that going skiing or to a cafe. Common therapy includes:

  • Antidepressants, such as Prozac;
  • Light therapy – using devices described above but with a higher level of light emitted (more on treatment here);
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy.

If you feel low and tired in winter, don’t get too concerned: remember, it is quite common. However, the important thing is not to give in to sadness and fatigue. Be active, go out, do sports, leave for a vacation, turn on some nice lights at home – and fight off the winter blues.

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