Researchers have found that a new form of depression occurs at a certain time of year, usually in the winter months called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD is most common during times of the year when temperatures begin to drop and Daylight Savings occurs. Seasonal Affective Disorder can be attributed to the biochemical imbalance in your brain that is caused by the gloomy winter days and lack of Vitamin D. According to the American Psychiatric Association, humans can experience a change in their internal clock as days become shorter — therefore their days just “seem off.”
While symptoms are similar to those of other forms of depression, it is important to recognize the differences in order to treat SAD properly. According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms include fatigue, lack of interest in activities, social withdrawal, cravings for foods high in carbohydrates and weight gain.
Doctors may prescribe increased light exposure, psychotherapy, meditation or photo therapy, where a sunlight simulator is placed in front of the patient for 45 minutes each day. Sometimes just walking outside or working near a window can help treat SAD.
Joanne Sotelo, MD, Director of Psychiatry at Scott & White Healthcare – Round Rock, said she sees patients with seasonal affective disorder starting in the Fall. “we know that as the days get shorter, the risk increases, the symptoms are like “atypical depression: increased sleep, increased appetite, irritability.”
“Since many of the patients we see already have mood disorders, what we see is more a “seasonal component” to their existing depression. I start screening for symptoms around this time of the year. I usually ask my patients how they do during the holidays. Some patients not only suffer because of the changes in daylight, but also because of the additional stressors during the holidays. Patients who have suffered losses don’t always feel like celebrating and it is also a reminder of their losses. In addition, there are higher expectations like family gatherings and work celebrations.
These can be stressful if you are already depressed and you do not feel like socializing, in addition to all the added expenses at a time when a lot of people are suffering financially.
“I generally recommend to make sure patients keep their house with a lot of light and to get natural sunlight. Exercise is important so I usually tell them that if they can, to go for walks in the morning so they get both things at once. If they get worse during this time of the year, I try to schedule them more regularly so we can assess and treat worsening symptoms if needed. “
SAD is when you feel emotionally down, which seems to come at specific times of the year. As with other depressive disorders, there are:
- Crying spells
- Loss of energy
The diagnosis of this problem is usually made by the history (what has been going on). A physical exam may be done to make sure there is no other cause.
The treatment of seasonal affective disorders has been found to be helped by photo-therapy. This means a person sits or lies for several hours per day in front of or under bright lights. The symptoms of depression respond usually over a couple days.
To avoid SAD, spend time outside as opposed to hibernating. Being around people and exposed to sunlight is the best way to keep your seratonin and melatonin levels steady.