Every year when winter comes around, it starts with a big bang. The holiday season ushers in winter with lights and festive cheer, and revelers enjoy time with friends and family. But after the New Year comes along, things can start to seem a little bleak. The days are short, and often gray and overcast. The cold weather can diminish your motivation to go out and stay active.
Sure, winter can be a challenging time of year for anyone. But for an estimated three million individuals, this time of year can be especially hard. Why? Because these individuals are affected by a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression, is a mood disorder that affects otherwise healthy people in the winter. Despite initial skepticism in the medical profession, SAD is now recognized as a common disorder. Prevalence varies depending on regions – for example, in Florida the rate of occurrence is approximately 1.4%, whereas in Alaska it climbs to a whopping 9.9%. The most important thing to note is that SAD can affect anyone – even those with otherwise normal mental health patterns.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of major depressive disorder, and its symptoms are very similar to those that suffer from chronic major depression. They can include:
- Fatigue and lethargy, including difficulty waking up
- Changes in appetite
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Difficulty with concentration and decision-making
- Lack of sex drive
- Agitation or irritability
Symptoms vary from case to case, but in most instances of seasonal affective disorder, individuals may experience one or more of these common symptoms.
What can you do about Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Just like any other mental health disorder, SAD can be treated and managed effectively. There are a number of different treatments for seasonal affective disorder with varying success rates:
Patients undergoing light therapy have scheduled 30-60 minute sessions involving exposure to exceptionally bright lights. This therapy is intended to mimic the higher exposure to sunlight that occurs throughout the remainder of the year, and can be a very effective treatment; however, because of the duration of each session and the inconvenience of scheduling, many patients opt out of this type of therapy. Creating a convenient, consistent schedule is key to success with this treatment.
Similar to light therapy, dawn simulation is a therapy that involves the use of timed lights. These lights gradually active over a period of half an hour, to as much as two hours, every morning before awakening. This therapy has also demonstrated success in many cases, and is often viewed as more convenient than the more rigorous schedule required for light therapy. An extension of this therapy includes dusk simulation, which involves decreasing light stimulus in the evening. Dusk simulation has been shown in some cases to ease sleep onset.
If you or a loved one experience extreme symptoms of SAD, your health care professional may prescribe treatment with antidepressant medication. These medications, referred to as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), increase the amount of serotonin absorbed in your brain, which can help to elevate your mood. Some studies have shown that light therapy in combination with SSRI treatment can be very effective, with a 67% positive response rate in seasonal affective disorder patients.
Regardless of the treatment course you choose to follow, talking to a health care professional is the first step to combatting any mental health disorder. If you or a loved one are normally healthy and experience any of the symptoms described above in the winter months, contact your primary care doctor and set up an appointment. And as always, if you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 immediately.