Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Season Is Upon Us

Posted on October 13th, 2011
Posted in Articles

When some people flip their calendar to September and October pages, rather than feel a sense of fun anticipation about falling leaves, pumpkins and holiday themes, they begin to feel a sense of dread. Some call it the winter blues, others call it winter depression, but mental health professionals refer to it as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Whatever you call it, it robs the cooler, darker seasons of the year of a great deal of pleasure and fun for some people.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression associated with fall and winter months. As the seasons change in the northern hemispheres, there is less light shining directly on the land. The diminishment of light can trigger a corresponding diminished mood and motivation. The condition may begin at any point in a person’s life, but most typically begins some time between ages 18 to 30.

It is estimated that 4 to 6 percent of Americans are affected by seasonal affective disorder. A similar percentage, about 7 percent, are impacted in the U.K. The condition is considered to be the cause of suicide rates in low-light Scandinavian countries, which are disproportionately larger than suicide rates for people who live within 30 degrees of the globe’s equator.

It is not fully understood just how the amount of light can initiate depression. It is believed that reduced sunshine triggers changes in amounts of the hormone melatonin produced by the body. When melatonin levels go down, so does the activity of certain brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin. The lowering of serotonin activity in the hypothalamus has long been believed to be connected to heightened anxiety and severe depression.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are akin to those which identify depression:

  • Low mood
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Changes in sleeping patterns (people may sleep significantly more)
  • Changes in appetite (people may also eat more or less)
  • Low energy
  • Tearfulness
  • Low self-image
  • Weakened immune system (vulnerable to more illness)
  • Loss of interest in things/activities which were formerly considered pleasurable
  • Possible instances of suicidal ideation

Treatment for SAD

There are a few treatments available for SAD. The condition may be treated with antidepressants and/or psychotherapy. However, phototherapy, sometimes called bright light therapy, has shown overwhelmingly positive results with no known side effects.

Bright light therapy involves spending as little as 30 minutes per day seated in front of specially treated full-spectrum light bulbs. This exposure to light seems to reverse the biochemical changes that are associated with SAD. The devices cost around $150 and are no larger than a typical textbook.

There is a light-joy ratio which affects some people more intensely than others. The symptoms often end with the coming of Spring and therefore it is believed that seasonal affective disorder is something people accept unquestioningly, leaving it largely undiagnosed and untreated. If you or someone you love is affected by the low-light seasons of the year, picking up a bright light device for Christmas could be the best bet for making it a more holly jolly holiday this year.

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