Seasonal Affective Disorder
How does one distinguish between winter blues and more serious conditions? Many feel sluggish or down during Fall and Winter months. The winter blues are pretty common. If this sadness is profound, it may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression which results from decreased light during the darker Fall and Winter months. With decreased sunlight, our internal biological clocks are thrown off, and it feels as though everything is out of sync. The natural hormone Melatonin also increases with less light, creating more lethargy, fatigue and drowsiness. This can also contribute to depression. It is important to know what the signs and symptoms of SAD and to receive the appropriate level of care.
Be Aware of Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Feelings of deep sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, or despair
- Significant changes in sleep; increased sleep or difficulty getting out of bed
- Significant changes in appetite or weight; craving starches or sweets
- Decreased interest, motivation and energy levels
- Withdrawal from others
- Losing pleasure in life
- Feeling guilty about the impact these changes have upon your life
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harming behaviors
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering important things
- Feeling irritable, frustrated, angry and snapping at others
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
- For mild symptoms, spending more time outside in the daylight may be helpful
- It is recommended that broad spectrum lights be used beginning early in September. These lights will mimic outdoor light and decrease the brain’s production of Melatonin. These lights should be a minimum of 10,000 lux. Used daily, they can be very helpful in minimizing the symptoms of SAD. One resource for these lights is: https://northernlighttechnologies.com/
- Physical exercise is a very important component of sound mental health. Those with SAD may find that hormones released during exercise may be enough of an antidepressant to decrease symptoms of SAD.
- If increased sunlight/lighting and exercise do not help, antidepressant medication may be needed.
Mental Health Therapy
Psychotherapy/Talk therapy may be very helpful in identifying patterns of behavior or thinking which contribute to SAD. It also is very helpful to learn coping skills/tools to minimize the symptoms of seasonal depression. This can be accomplished at two different levels, and your mental health therapist or prescriber can help you determine the most appropriate level of care for you.
- Outpatient Individual Therapy
- Intensive Outpatient Therapy
Many are able to be treated weekly to biweekly on an outpatient basis by their primary care physicians, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, psychologists and mental health therapists. When the symptoms become extremely debilitating, however, it will be important to consider a higher level of care. An Intensive Outpatient Program has been of tremendous assistance in helping those with SAD or depression to regain healthy functioning again. It is a 7 week, 3 day per week, 3 hour per day program. The main goal is to teach such individuals healthy coping skills which will increase health and wellness.
In conclusion, know the signs that you or someone you care about is struggling beyond the typical seasonal sadness or sluggishness. Reach out and don’t suffer or watch others struggle in silence. Know that there is effective help. There is hope!
John A. Glovan, Psy.D.
Director, Health and Wellness Program
The Behavioral Wellness Group