As the days grow shorter and the skies start to turn gray, some people wrestle with more than just the winter chill. They experience a shift in their mood that includes depression, lack of motivation, sadness, and fatigue. This phenomenon, known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), affects many individuals during the colder, darker months of the year.
The American Psychiatric Association reports that seasonal depression affects about 5% of U.S. adults. If the symptoms of this disorder sound familiar, you can get the help you need in the Arlington Heights area at NeuroHealth Arlington Heights.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Symptoms most commonly occur or worsen during the fall and winter when daylight hours decrease and the weather becomes gloomy. SAD can also affect individuals during the spring and summer, though this is less common.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Scientists think that variations in light exposure this time of year contribute to SAD by disrupting the body’s internal clock, affecting the production of certain hormones. These hormonal imbalances can lead to the development of depressive symptoms. For example, the body makes more melatonin during darker months, which may cause fatigue. Harvard Health Publishing notes that our eyes’ light sensitivity and the body’s natural circadian rhythm (sleep–wake cycles) may also play a role in the development of SAD.
Who Can Develop Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Anyone can develop SAD, but it more commonly affects women than men. It’s also more common in older adults and rarely affects people younger than 20, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. You may be more likely to develop SAD and other forms of depression if you have a chronic illness, such as cancer or heart disease, or a mental health condition or family history of mental health disorders.
The National Institute of Mental Health notes that SAD often occurs in people who have bipolar disorder, which has a similar cyclical pattern. It may also be more common in those who live further north, where daylight hours are shorter.
What Are the Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Recognizing the symptoms of SAD allows you to seek a diagnosis and get the treatment you need to start feeling better. If you have this type of depression, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair that may interfere with daily function.
- Fatigue, low energy, and a lack of motivation.
- Sleep problems, such as oversleeping or insomnia.
- Overeating, sugar cravings, and weight gain.
- Difficulty concentrating, restlessness, and irritability.
- A loss of interest in your favorite activities.
- Isolation from loved ones.
- Physical symptoms, such as body aches and headaches.
These issues typically show up or worsen with the change in seasons, then begin to abate as summer approaches. As a cyclical condition, SAD tends to reoccur each year during the same season for affected individuals.
What Are the Worst Months for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The peak months for SAD include November, December, January, and February. However, not everyone with SAD will experience it to the same degree or during the same months of the year. Some individuals have mild symptoms, while others may experience SAD in the transitional seasons of spring and fall.
How Long Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Last?
The duration of SAD varies from person to person, but symptoms tend to last four or five months. The APA estimates that most people with SAD have symptoms for about 40% of the year. Generally, SAD starts in the late fall and extends into the early spring, corresponding with the reduction in natural daylight. Some individuals may experience symptoms for a few weeks or once every few years rather than every year.
What Are Some Ways To Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder?
People who have SAD can manage their symptoms with a combination of therapeutic techniques and coping skills. Many individuals rely on light therapy, also known as phototherapy. This treatment, which has been used since the 1980s, involves systematic exposure to very bright, natural-spectrum light to regulate the body’s internal clock and improve mood. A light therapy box emits about 10,000 lux, which is a measure of light. In comparison, normal indoor light is only about 100 lux, while a bright, sunny day provides about 50,000 lux. The box filters harmful UV rays, so you don’t have to worry about exposure.
Generally, you’ll sit in front of the lightbox every morning for about 30 to 45 minutes. Consult a health care professional for guidance on the proper use of light therapy. This treatment is safe for most people, but you shouldn’t try it without your doctor’s supervision if you take medications that make you sensitive to sunlight or have an eye disease.
For severe cases of SAD, doctors may prescribe antidepressant medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These medications can help alleviate the symptoms of depression you experience with this condition. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be beneficial for individuals with SAD. Therapy helps individuals identify negative thought patterns and develop strategies to manage their symptoms effectively. Making lifestyle adjustments can also be helpful. Engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a balanced diet, and getting adequate sleep can all contribute to better mood and overall well-being.
Don’t underestimate the power of social support. Sharing your feelings and experiences with friends and family can provide emotional relief and reduce feelings of isolation. Having something to look forward to can be a powerful motivator. Plan vacations or events during winter to break up the monotony and provide positive anticipation. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques can help manage stress and improve your overall mental health.
Connect With Medical Treatment for SAD
If you experience seasonal affective disorder symptoms, contact the NeuroHealth Arlington Heights team. Our professionals can conduct a thorough neuropsychological assessment and develop a treatment plan to manage your SAD and improve your quality of life. Call us today to schedule an appointment.