Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


It is a real disorder.  This is the time of year when a number of people begin to suffer with its symptoms.   Twenty percent of the population is reported to experience many of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, (SAD).  My father used to say everything was fine as long as “the old sun ball was shining.”  My favorite day is December 21, because the days start getting longer and brighter.  June 21 always brings to me the realization that we are going in the other direction.  Consequently, we will have less light in our days.  How many of us say, “At least the sun is shining.”  Do we all suffer from SAD?  Probably to some degree most of us are negatively affected by the lack of sunshine in our days during the winter months.

Many who are affected do not understand what they are experiencing.  They may not realize that there is help out there for them.  We have all heard about SAD, but what exactly is it?  SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually in the fall, and continues until the beginning of summer.  Less common is the reverse situation. This occurs when a person starts feeling depressed in the spring and feels better during the fall and winter.  I will concentrate on the winter edition because we are at the beginning of that season and it is definitely the most common.  Along with depression, symptoms of this disorder include feelings of hopelessness and anxiety, loss of energy, social withdrawal, lethargy, appetite changes, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating.  Factors that may increase a person’s risk for SAD include being female, living far from the equator, family history, and having a history of depression.  People between the ages of 15 and 55 are most at risk for this disorder.

What causes SAD?  The specific cause for this disorder remains unknown.  Most likely, it is thought, that genetics, age and your body’s natural chemical makeup all play a role in developing the condition.  Some specific factors which are also considered to be instrumental in the development of this disorder are:

–  Your biological clock, known as circadian rhythm.  The lack of sunshine in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock.  Your circadian rhythm is disrupted because your body does not know when it should be asleep or awake.  This disruption often leads to depression.

–  Serotonin levels.  Serotonin is our “feel good” hormone.  It is felt that reduced sunlight can cause a drop in this chemical in our brain and that may trigger depression.

–  Melatonin levels.  Melatonin is a natural hormone that plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.  A change in seasons can disrupt this hormone balance and cause problems with mood and depression.

As I previously said, most of us enjoy a sunny day more than a dark day.  When do our feelings become serious enough to see our doctor for advice and treatment?  If you feel down for days at a time and you are having difficulty getting motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, it is probably time to talk to your doctor.  If you are experiencing this along with any of the other symptoms mentioned above, you owe it to yourself to get professional help.  Avoid trying to “stick it out until summer.”  Life is too short for us to sacrifice any of it to a disorder that can be managed.

What is the treatment?  After a person is professionally diagnosed, a treatment plan will be discussed.  It is usually not reasonable for most of us to relocate to a sunnier climate. Therefore, we need to use the resources we have available that can make us feel better.  Light therapy (phototherapy) is one of the most popular treatments and it is very effective.  This is achieved by using a light box to mimic outdoor light.   The light causes a change in the brain’s chemicals linked to mood.  Antidepressant medications are often beneficial for people with severe symptoms.  Psychotherapy is also useful for some people who need help to find healthy ways to cope with the symptoms of SAD and manage stress.

Anyone who has experienced any of the symptoms of SAD, to any degree, should benefit from the following advice:

–         Make your surroundings sunnier and brighter.  Trim trees to allow more sunlight into the house, open blinds, keep lights on and when possible, sit closer to bright windows while at home or at work.

–         Get outside.  Take a walk, go to a park and sit on a bench to soak up the sun.  On a colder day, you can do the same if you dress properly for it.

–         Exercise regularly.  Physical exercise helps relieve anxiety and stress, which often increase the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.  Improving your physical fitness can make you feel better about yourself.  This benefit may help to improve your mood.

In conclusion, a review of this disorder and its associated treatments, indicates that the treatments used to control this condition will help you, in many ways, to live a healthier, happier life.

–         Stick to your plan of treatment including medications and medical appointment.

–         Take proper care of yourself by getting enough rest and give yourself time to relax.  Regular exercise and a healthy diet are keys to helping many mental and physical health problems.

–         Manage your stress by learning techniques to lower your stress.  Give yourself a break by having some “me-time”.

–         Socializing is important to avoid feeling down.  Make an effort to connect with your friends for support.  It is therapeutic to have a shoulder to cry on or someone with whom to share a laugh.

–         Take a trip if possible.  A break during the winter can be extremely beneficial. Anticipation of the trip may be as rewarding as the experience itself.

We encourage our residents at the Farrar Home to keep their rooms well lit, to raise shades during the day and to go out, when possible, with family and friends.    Daily exercise and socialization are also an important part of our program.   Light boxes and special lamps have also been useful for some of our residents.

I look forward to seeing smiles on everyone’s face this winter because you are taking good care of yourselves.  We are in a colder, darker climate than many, but we are also very fortunate not to be victims of extreme weather.  We need to be thankful for what we have and make the best of each day.

Living life to the best of our abilities and taking good care of ourselves and other people will help to make the world a better place for everyone.