Seasonal Affective Disorder
Do the shorter and colder days make you feel blue? If Daylight Saving Time has you feeling down, you may actually have a common medical condition.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or S.A.D, is a mood disorder that affects over five percent of the U.S. population each year. Dr. Stuart Anfang, chief of adult psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center said.
“Essentially it’s your body’s response to a lack of sunlight. As the days get shorter and the temperature goes down, some people can be very sensitive to that and will experience a seasonal depression. The symptoms can often last for a couple of months until spring comes and the days get longer. This can impact their mood causing them to feel depressed, down and sleep a lot.”
So what’s the science behind it? Dr. Anfang says it has to do it with light, particularly sunlight.
“Sunlight interacts with the brain chemical known as melatonin,” said Anfang. “Melatonin is part of our body’s response to time and light. When Melatonin levels are off balance in the brain, it can cause issues like S.A.D, jet lag and other sleep disorders”.
S.A.D vs. Acute Depression
People with acute or chronic depression disorders can certainly see their symptoms worsen in the winter time. However, those who battle depression may experience symptom all year round. Dr. Anfang says those who deal with S.A.D generally experience no mood disorder symptoms outside the winter timeframe.
“If we can trace back in a person’s history that this happens every year around this time, it starts around October or November and lasts until February or April, and you can establish that pattern of seasonal worsening, then that becomes a hallmark of seasonal affective disorder,” explained Dr. Anfang.
Treatment depends on the severity of the condition. For some, the blues they have are mild and doesn’t impact their everyday functioning. For many of those people, just knowing that it will pass helps get them through it. Many people take a vacation to a warm climate for a couple of weeks to get out of the cold weather and get some sunlight. For many of these people, S.A.D. passes on its own. However, if the symptoms don’t pass, there are a number of treatment options available.
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy or “talk therapy” focuses on reframing the mind and reminding people of reality and explaining that this happens every year and it’s just for a limited time and it isn’t catastrophic.
- Light Therapy is sometimes recommended for mild to moderate cases of S.A.D. This method uses a special light that emits a certain frequency which mimics the sunlight. Patients sit under this special light for 30 to 40 minutes a day. These lights have proven to be effective and can be purchased online.
- Medication may be used when symptoms are more severe. When this is the case, patients are prescribed antidepressants or other medications.
- Exercise has been proven to be helpful in treating mood disorders in general. Endorphins are released during exercise, which are “feel good” chemicals in the brain. This helps ease the symptoms of seasonal depression and reduce the immune system chemicals that can worsen depression. However, it can often be difficult for people experiencing these S.A.D symptoms to motivate themselves to be able to do that.
When to See Your Doctor
While the symptoms may pass for many, for some it can cause more impairment, even interfering with the ability to work, study, or do daily activities. It may even cause more significant depressive symptoms including overeating, excessive sleeping, decreased energy, depressed mood and suicidal thoughts. If these symptoms become more notable, that’s the time to seek help from your primary care doctor. The good news is you don’t have to suffer in silence. S.A.D is actually a common condition that can be easily treated.