This is a time of holiday cheer for many, yet there are some who react to the holiday season with absolute chagrin. While certain people may have various reasons for feeling a bit down as the winter arrives—separation from family, financial troubles that make it hard to buy gifts, etc.—there are many who also suffer from a very real disorder that grips their emotions as the land falls under winter’s icy spell. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the impact of this disorder can be quite extreme in some cases (particularly for those with addiction and substance use issues).
Those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder may not always be aware of their condition. This is why it’s highly important to understand what SAD is, how to recognize it, and how to deal with it if you are among its many sufferers. This is the focus of our current discussion. We hope that this information may help some of you cope with this snowy season, and that all of you will enjoy a happy winter season this year.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is, as the name applies, a mood disorder that takes hold of its sufferers whenever the snowy season rolls around. It can affect up to one in ten people, especially in areas that have a particularly cold or cloudy climate during the winter. For instance, the “one in ten” statistic is especially prevalent in states such as Minnesota, in which the winter climate is particularly harsh. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, people who may be bright and sunny the rest of the year will suddenly find that their mood has become clouded by darkness.
The cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown, although one cause is suspected above most others. The cause that is commonly proposed is that our internal clocks are thrown off by the winter season. As our circadian rhythms are disrupted, certain people will begin to exhibit symptoms of SAD. It is the increased length of the nighttime hours that is believed to cause this, as exposure to the sun in the morning is what begins our daily internal clock. Since the sunrise begins much later during the winter, this causes an internal delay that may affect certain people’s moods in a dramatic fashion.
The proposition that SAD is caused by a lack of sunlight during the winter time seems to be the most plausible theory on the table. Note that, while approximately 11% of Minnesotans are subjected to symptoms of seasonal affective disorder each year, this figure drops to as low as 2% in sunnier states such as Florida. The problem is exacerbated when a person frequently must wake up early in the morning to go to work. In such cases, there is no way for them to avoid waking up during the low-light hours. And if they struggle with insomnia or simply had trouble sleeping the night before, then they are going to be in for a rough day when they encounter circadian rhythm delays in the morning.
There is also a difference between the ways in which men and women experience SAD. About 60-90% of those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder are women, yet men tend to exhibit symptoms more severely. Their sense of fatigue will be stronger, and they may become a bit more depressed. They usually won’t experience symptoms until around the age of 20, although there are cases in which people have begun to show signs of SAD a bit earlier.
Aside from gender, circadian rhythm and exposure to light, there are a few other possible causes (or at least correlating factors). For instance, seasonal affective disorder has been found to exhibit some level of heritability. One does not always inherit it from a family member, but there still appears to be some measure of genetic influence involved in the disorder’s occurrence. It has also been found that many people who lack vitamin D are at increased risk. This appears to be the case whether the sufferer has a natural deficiency or simply makes poor dietary choices.
SAD is still relatively young in the mental health community. In fact, the term “seasonal affective disorder” has only existed since 1985. But there is a great deal that we are learning about it every day. One of the more interesting facts of note is that 55% of those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder have a relative with one of many similar depressive disorders. There are also a reported 34% of SAD sufferers with close relatives who abuse drugs or alcohol. These facts are quite alarming, as they indicate that addicts and alcoholics who suffer from SAD may actually put those around them in danger of suffering similar symptoms. This is why potential sufferers must learn everything they can about seasonal affective disorder, so as to better recognize it and treat the symptoms before they can do too much damage.
How to Tell If You Are Suffering
The trouble with seasonal affective disorder is that it really isn’t made for self-diagnosis. There are a wide array of factors to be taken into account, and it’s always best to seek a professional opinion if you think you might have it. Luckily, there are several specific symptoms that might tell you if you are currently suffering from seasonal depression.
As noted by the Mayo Clinic, SAD does not simply mean that you feel a little down in the winter. In fact, there are some whose cycles are more likely to affect them during the spring and summer months. The fall and winter cycles are actually quite different from the spring and summer cycles, but the two sets do have a few major symptoms in common. Those who suffer from SAD will feel depressed, hopeless, and worthless for most of the day. These feelings will last just about every day during a cycle. They will lose interest, have trouble sleeping, experience weight fluctuations, and will suffer from sluggishness and low energy. Since SAD is a form of major depression, some will even contemplate the idea of suicide.
Those with winter-onset SAD will also be hypersensitive. They may be irritable, or simply more anxious. Oversleeping is common, although the sufferer will often remain awake late at night with a craving to binge carbohydrates, leading to weight gain. In addition to these symptoms, those who experience seasonal affective disorder in the late fall and winter will generally feel heavier, as if their arms and legs were made of lead.
Spring and summer SAD is far less common, but it still has a few of its own unique symptoms. Instead of increased hunger and weight gain, sufferers will generally encounter diminishing appetites and weight loss. They will not oversleep, but will instead be prone to insomnia. The biggest similarities to fall and winter SAD are that those who encounter seasonal affective disorder during the spring and summer will generally experience great bouts of depression and agitation or anxiety. The effect is that, much as is the case with winter-onset SAD, those who experience summer-onset SAD may have trouble with social interactions.
Seasonal affective disorder can even create problems in those who struggle with various co-occurring disorders, specifically bipolar disorder. The seasons during which they are affected by SAD will usually have an impact on the specific toll that their bipolar disorder takes on them. Those with summer-onset SAD may be prone to hypomania, while those with winter-onset SAD may fall into a state of deep depression. Perhaps these differences are not extreme, but seasonal affective disorder will nonetheless be far more dangerous if the sufferer exhibits signs of any other mood disorders.
As stated above, those who believe they may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (or any other depressive disorder, for that matter) would do well to seek the help of a licensed professional. This may not be necessary if one simply feels down on a few bad-weather days. But if you are experiencing several of the above symptoms for as many as days or weeks at a time, then now is the time to act. Even if you are not yet harboring any tendencies toward suicidal ideation, it is better to act now than to run the risk of waiting until it is too late. There are also several measures that you may take to improve your stability of mood, which we will discuss below.
How to Deal with SAD This Winter
Seeing a doctor is highly important, and we certainly suggest following their recommendations and taking any non-addictive medications that may be prescribed. That said, one may still need to take matters into their own hands to a certain extent. The following measures may help you to regulate your mood in a healthy way while dealing with the specific causes of seasonal affective disorder that may be playing a role in your condition. To recap, the main causes aside from gender and genetics are lack of sleep, limited exposure to light, and vitamin D deficiency.
We’ll begin with vitamin D deficiency, since we have actually talked about the benefits of mental nutrition in the past. You can easily take supplements, but it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate some vitamin-rich foods into your diet. Eggs and salmon are two great options, as well as orange juice and dairy products such as cheese and milk. You might also try mushrooms, and a moderate amount of butter or margarine would not be the worst thing in the world. The interesting thing about vitamin D, however, is that you do not need food and/or supplements alone. You can also boost your body’s vitamin D balance through exposure to natural sunlight. And since a lack of light in the mornings is one of the possible causes attributed to seasonal affective disorder, spending some more time outdoors during the daytime might not be the worst idea.
Those who do not have the ability to spend time outdoors due to inclement weather might try light therapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, this is performed by sitting next to a simple light therapy box. These boxes put out artificial light, which is believed to help regulate the depressive symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy, this method as actually used almost exclusively to treat patients who are suffering from symptoms of SAD.
Even light therapy, however, may not be enough for those who suffer from sleep disorders such as insomnia that disrupt their circadian rhythms. And since it is very difficult for addicts and alcoholics to take most sleeping pills without risking overuse, many may feel as if they’re in a bit of a pickle. The best option may be to ask your doctor about trazodone. This non-addictive drug acts as an antidepressant (which is great for most SAD sufferers), but it also tends to make the patient feel very drowsy when taken at night. In other words, it may help you kill two birds with one stone.
Other than that, it is worth entertaining the idea of cognitive-behavioral therapy. If you cannot see a counselor (or lack the willingness to do so), then at least discuss your problems with a close friend or family member. You do not have to be alone during the winter season, or any season for that matter. Seasonal affective disorder might make you feel as if your world is crumbling. You may feel lost, hopeless, or afraid. Through help, you can overcome these feelings.
Happy Holidays from Amethyst Recovery. Have a holly, jolly Christmas and a glorious New Year.