Mood Disorders in the Winter: What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Any type of mood disorder is a life-changer, regardless of its duration or time of onset. This is definitely true of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a condition that manifests periodically and only during certain times of the year. While a few victims of seasonal affective disorder experience its symptoms during the transition from spring to summer, most SAD sufferers are stricken during the cold season, with mood changes that begin in autumn and progressively worsen as the temperatures fall.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Wintertime seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. But unlike conventional depression, it is always cyclical and fully synchronized with the changing of the calendar. Just as surely as it arrives in winter, its symptoms will gradually fade as the days lengthen and springtime blooms. For the most part, the symptoms of SAD are identical to those of major depression. They may include:

  • Persistently low energy and low motivation
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities
  • Lack of attention to grooming or personal care
  • Poor focus and concentration
  • Disrupted sleep patterns, usually leading to nighttime insomnia
  • Changes in appetite, i.e., cravings for junk food or episodes of binging
  • Being easily flustered or frustrated by even the smallest setbacks
  • Battered self-esteem and extreme emotional sensitivity
  • Reclusiveness, withdrawal from social interactions

It is easy to confuse seasonal affective disorder with major depression—and vice versa—when it first develops. But once the seasonal variations become obvious, it will not be hard to distinguish one type of mood disorder from the other.

Causes of SAD

Experts believe reduced exposure to sunlight is the primary cause of seasonal affective disorder. During winter, the days are shorter and most people spend far more time indoors, leading to sunlight deprivation that precipitates changes in brain and body chemistry. Insufficient exposure to sunlight suppresses the body’s ability to produce adequate supplies of the hormone melatonin, and it also hinders the brain’s capacity to generate normal amounts of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep cycle, while serotonin preserves emotional equilibrium and promotes feelings of bliss and contentment. This connection between biological processes and exposure to daylight explains why seasonal affective disorder is more common among those who reside far to the north or south of the equator. Other factors that can predispose a person to SAD include:

  • Gender (three-fourths of SAD sufferers are women)
  • Age (younger adult women are the group most affected)
  • Serious bouts of the flu or other cold weather illnesses
  • Family history of SAD and/or major depression
  • A previous diagnosis for a mood disorder, usually either major depression or bipolar disorder

Seasonal affective disorder does tend to reoccur once it develops, so those who experience its symptoms for the first time should seek help rather than trying to ride out the storm and hoping the depression never returns.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD sufferers generally respond well to a treatment regimen that includes outpatient counseling, antidepressant medication and light therapy. The latter treatment method is strictly do-it-yourself and involves daily exposure to light produced by special boxes or devices that emit rays which duplicate the wavelengths of sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder can be overcome, and if you have been experiencing its disabling symptoms you should consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist right away, before this underpublicized mood disorder steals even one more valuable minute from your life.   Sources: National Institute of Mental Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder Harvard Medical School: Seasonal Affective Disorder: Bring on the Light

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