As the seasons change and the days become shorter, there can be a tendency for some people in northern climates to be affected by the decrease in exposure to sunlight.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that corresponds to seasonal changes in light. It most commonly occurs in late fall and lasts through the winter and into spring. It’s not uncommon to feel “down” during the winter months. But people with SAD are not able to function normally during these months. It often begins during adolescence or young adulthood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder may be experienced by six of every 100 people in the United States according to statistics by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Another 10% to 20% may experience some mild form of SAD. It seems to be more common in women than men and although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than 20 years of age. For adults, the risk of SAD decreases as they get older. Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in northern geographic regions.
The cause of SAD is not completely understood. It is clearly related to changes in seasonal light. Light affects cycles in the body. Lack of light during the winter months could possibly throw off levels of hormones and brain chemicals. This could contribute to the symptoms of SAD.
Scientists are also researching if SAD is related to lack of the chemical serotonin in the brain.
People with SAD have seasonal symptoms that come and go each year. They usually peak during the winter and disappear during the spring and summer.
Symptoms can include:
- Depressed mood, feelings of sadness
- Cravings for sweet or starchy foods
- Significant weight gain or loss
- Lack of energy
- Oversleeping or insomnia
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased sexual desire
Visit our interactive screening tool to evaluate your symptoms.
People with SAD may benefit from several different treatment or approaches:
Light therapy is simple. The light box is made up of fluorescent bulbs, a reflective surface, and a diffusing screen. Ordinary household lighting is not sufficient. You sit a few feet away from the ultra-bright light for a certain amount of time each day, usually in the morning. You will be able to read or work during the therapy, as your eyes will remain open. Your doctor will probably start you off with 15-20 minutes a day. You will gradually increase the time, usually to 30-45 minutes daily.
There is some evidence that light therapy may be as effective as antidepressant therapy, but with fewer side effects.
Tanning beds are not recommended as a source of light therapy. They give off ultraviolet light, which can increase the risk of cancer. They also have not been proven effective for treating SAD. Many people find that getting outdoors for a walk each day is also helpful.
Your doctor may prescribe anti-depressant medications. These medications are usually prescribed when a person does not feel better with light therapy or if the depression is very severe.
Therapists can help you learn ways of managing stress and the symptoms of SAD. To schedule an appointment with a psychotherapist at Aurora Behavioral Health call 414-773-4312 or visit our web site at http://www.aurora.org/abhs
Aurora Behavioral Health Services offers complete mental health treatment options in a caring, confidential environment. If you find you may be struggling with stress that is causing significant physical or emotional impairment in your life, contact us — online or by phone at 1-877-666-7223 — as soon as possible.