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Everything You Need To Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter in Minneapolis has officially arrived and rightly so, everything has become much colder, darker and seemingly more bleak. If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, then you are acutely aware to what time of the year it is. If you or someone you know is suffering from SAD, read on to find out symptoms, causes and treatment of winter depression.

What Is SAD?

You may know what depression is, but what exactly is seasonal affective disorder?

SAD is acknowledged more and more as the winter months approach. It often occurs as daylight hours get shorter, and your body changes the way it produces chemicals. Both serotonin and melatonin levels are affected. Drastically changing daylight hours also affect your body’s internal clock.

Seasonal affective disorder is considered by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a common, seasonal specifier of bipolar and similar disorders, affecting many people throughout the entire country. If you have SAD, you may experience symptoms of extreme mood change in the winter (or any of the seasons) such as sleeping too much or too little, having no energy, losing your appetite and many more.

Symptoms of SAD

There’s a common misconception that emotional symptoms such as moodiness, irritability, and depression are the only symptoms of SAD. The truth, though, is that physical symptoms are the first sign of SAD. These can include tiredness, more pain than usual accompanying a headache, or changes in sleep pattern and appetite. They’re followed by the more emotional symptoms that many have come to associate with SAD. Many suffering from, “winter blues,” may not realize that they are showing signs of SAD.

Symptoms of SAD may consist of a number of non-characteristic moods and outlooks. Here are the common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder:

  • Oversleeping

  • Undersleeping

  • Difficulty waking up

  • Nauseous

  • Lack of appetite

  • Increase in appetite

  • Increase in carbohydrate cravings

  • Lack of energy

  • Lack of focus + concentration

  • Anxious + irritable

  • Social withdrawal

  • Decreased sex drive

  • General feelings of depression, pessimism and hopelessness

Many of us may have experienced these symptoms in the winter and not realized that it’s caused by a lack of sunlight. Depending on the severity of SAD you find yourself plagued with, there are a few options. Any changes in sleeping patterns, or mood changes that affect the enjoyment of your hobbies, you should speak with your doctor. One way to help find treatment is to understand what can cause SAD.

Causing + Diagnosing SAD

What exactly causes seasonal affective disorder and how are you diagnosed with it?

Because SAD is most closely related to reduced daylight hours, those who live closer to the equator are at significantly lower risk for SAD. Less than 2% of Floridians reportedly suffer from SAD each year. Here in the heart of Minnesota, however, we don’t fare quite so well. In addition to proximity to the equator, women and younger people are both at higher risk for SAD.

Many species of mammals go into a somewhat dormant state for winter. For example, many of our forest friends hibernate for the entire cold season. There are arguments among professionals that seasonal affective disorder is actually an evolutionary adaptation among humans. As there’s less food available, being more dormant in the winter would let humans preserve more energy with a reduced need for caloric intake. That has translated into modern day humans eating too many sweets and sleeping through work.

Seasonal affective disorder is a specifier, or added description to an already noticed pattern of major depressive episodes in clients with bipolar or major depressive disorder.

To be diagnosed with SAD, you must first meet four specific criteria.

  • Have depressive episodes at a certain time of the year.

  • Have remissions or mania characteristic to that certain time of year.

  • These problems have been carrying on for 2 years or more.

  • Seasonal episodes outnumber other depressive episodes throughout client’s lifetime.

SAD Treatment

There are several popular ways to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, both through the help of therapists and strategies at home. A variety of treatment options range from phototherapy, or light therapy, to medication, to psychotherapy to combat the symptoms of SAD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be one of the best treatment for seasonal affective disorder. CBT helps clients identify and assimilate likable activities into their personal lives, while noticing and denouncing negative emotions and actions. For example, those with SAD will view winter in a negative scope. Working with a therapist to develop a plan to fight this will help you overcome your SAD.

Another way to fight seasonal affective is to try light therapy. By sitting in front of a light box for 30 minutes a day during the winter months, light therapy helps the client deal with the negative side effects of SAD. A full spectrum light bulb acts similarly to sunlight, and gets your body back to its regular pattern. Through much more lumens than regular light bulbs, the bright white, full spectrum box mimics the sun’s rays and suppresses melatonin and reduces the patient’s depression. Before trying phototherapy, consult with a doctor to ensure that you get the proper bulb. There are a variety of full spectrum lights available, all in varying levels of safety and effectiveness.

Can You Prevent SAD?

There is no surefire way to prevent SAD. Those with good stress management skills generally find themselves less affected. Aim to spend as much time in the sunlight as you can as the days get shorter. And of course, proper exercise. Since SAD symptoms affect one’s desire to exercise, this can be difficult. Maintaining a regular exercise schedule does go a great deal in fighting the emotional symptoms of SAD.

SAD is a common and serious condition, especially this time of year in Minnesota. If you suspect you’re suffering from early stages of SAD, or even just holiday stress, contact Choices. Choices Psychotherapy is located in St. Louis Park. Know that you don’t have to weather the winter on your own, there is always help available.