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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a yearly depression that tends to occur at a particular season. It is commonly experienced during the winter months, however, people may also have it during summer or spring.
Shalu Bhatti
"In addition to the common symptoms―depression, sleep disturbances, cravings for starchy, sugary food―individuals with SAD may experience problems in other areas of their lives. They may perform poorly at work. Their relationships may become troubled. They may withdraw and just want to be alone." ― Dr. Raymond Crowel (Mental Health America)

The other names for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are: Seasonal adjustment disorder, winter depression, or the famously known, winter blues. SAD can be seen in as little as 1% of adult population in Florida, to as high as 10% of adult population in New Hampshire. This mood disorder is also known to be prevalent in around 2% of the population in Northern Europe, and is found more in women than men. Not only in adults, it can also be seen in children. As per a survey done by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), almost 3% of children have this disorder; children in the last 3 years of their high school are prone to SAD, as well. Although the numbers are less, there is no guarantee that these won't include our loved ones, or even us!

What is SAD

It is a mood disorder wherein a person gets depressed during a specific season. This happens mostly during winter, but may also occur during summer or spring. Therefore, if you feel that a known one tends to behave normally all throughout the year, but it's during a specific season, that he/she becomes moody and depressed, there are chances that the person has seasonal affective disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

As mentioned earlier, SAD can be of many types, depending upon the season of the year. The symptoms of SAD in the winter months vary from the symptoms experienced during summer. There is also a variant of this disorder known as Reverse seasonal affective disorder, which is when the person experiences issues such as mania or hypomania, due to seasonal changes. Again, the symptoms may be different in children when compared to adults. Below is a list of all the symptoms of SAD, under all the aforementioned scenarios.

In Children
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Reduced energy levels
  • Sleeping too much
  • Not socializing
  • Change in eating habits with cravings for starchy and sweet food items
During Winter
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Change in eating habits with cravings for carbohydrates
  • Tearfulness
  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Weight gain, due to sleeping and overeating
  • Sleeping too much
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lack of enjoyment
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of concentration
  • Headaches
During Summer
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Poor eating habits
  • Increased/decreased sex drive
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Rapid thoughts and speech
  • Elevated mood
  • Agitation
  • Increased socializing
  • Being hyperactive
  • Uncontrolled enthusiasm

The exact cause of why this disorder occurs in some people only, and not others, is still unknown. However, the condition may be associated with many factors including, genes, age, and the body's reaction towards the seasonal changes. These are explained as under.
  • Circadian Rhythm: The circadian rhythm can also be referred to as our body's internal clock. Studies show that the effect of reduced sunlight―which is common in the winter season―disrupts our biological clock, which leads to depression and mood swings.
  • Serotonin Levels: Reduction in sunlight triggers reduction in the serotonin levels, causing lethargy and depression.
  • Melatonin Levels: Melatonin levels have strong effect on our moods and sleeping pattern. This hormone is secreted by the pineal gland which is directly connected to the retina. Darkness increases the production of melatonin, and may lead to moody behavior and oversleeping.
Treatment Guidelines

For diagnosis, the following criteria spelled in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) must be met.
  • The patient must have experienced depression along with other SAD symptoms for a minimum of 2 consecutive years, during the same season in both years.
  • The time period or the season when the patient goes through depression, must be followed by periods when the patient is not depressed. Meaning, as soon as the season changes, the depression should also go.
  • Apart from the seasonal changes, there should be no other reason for the person to experience the aforementioned symptoms.
Post diagnosis, the patient is given various treatment options and medications in order to deal with SAD. These include -
  • Light Therapy: As you might have noticed in the section above, lack of light affects the production of many hormones in the body, such as melatonin and serotonin. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, consists of a technique wherein there is a specialized light box with bright white light. The patient is exposed to this for 30 to 60 minutes. However, studies show that exposing the patient to green light is much more helpful than white light. This therapy also has some side effects, so you must consult your health care specialist before going ahead.
  • Psychotherapy: It helps in identifying the negative moods and thoughts that SAD leads to. Psychotherapy also helps the patient cope with the seasonal changes in a healthy manner.
  • Negative Air Ionization Therapy: It is used with light therapy to help supplement the thin winter ion supply and mimic summer-like conditions.
  • Medications: These include antidepressants such as Bupropion, Paroxetine, Zoloft, and Prozac. However, it is strictly advised to consult with your health care specialist before going further with the medications and therapies.
Some alternative treatments including yoga, acupuncture, St. John's Wort, and Omega-3 essential fatty acids, have also proved to be helpful. Even massage therapy and meditation helps in overcoming this disorder. The key is to stay as active and social as possible, so that there is no room for sadness and depression in your life. Just stick to your treatment plan and take care of yourself.

Disclaimer: This PsycholoGenie article is meant for informational purposes only and should not be considered as a replacement for expert medical advice.