Commonly known as a seasonal affective disorder(SAD), seasonal depression to a mental condition that usually occur every year at the same time starting at fall becomes worse in winter and ends in spring. It is different to “cabin fever” or “the winter blues” in that its symptoms are more severe.
There also exists another form of SAD referred to as “summer depression” in which symptoms are experienced starting in late spring or early summer and ends in winter. The severity of symptoms of SAD varies from one person to the other.
Seasonal Depression Symptoms
Seasonal depression patients exhibit different symptoms with the most common ones being:
- Low moods
- Increased irritability
- Anxiety and nervousness
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Social isolation
- Loss of concentration
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Increased food cravings resulting to weight gain
- Poor appetite accompanied with weight loss*
- Restlessness and agitation
- Sleepiness or sleep disturbances
Who are Most Affected by Depression?
It is estimated that nearly half a million Americans experience seasonal depression, particularly in winter. Most of those who suffer are women and the onset typically begins in early adulthood. The disease also affects men but the cases are very rare.
Children and adolescents too can suffer from the seasonal depression but old adults are less likely to have it. People living in cloudy regions, at high altitudes or those who relocate to higher latitudes are more prone to SAD than those living near the equator.
What are the Causes of Seasonal Depression?
It is still unclear about the exact cause of seasonal depression. However, there is mounting evidence suggesting that people with an inherent vulnerability suffer from SAD due to changes in sunlight exposure.
It has been theorized that reduction* in sun exposure affects the internal biological clock which controls our mood, sleep and hormonal balance. Getting exposed to light can help reset the biological clock.
Another theory suggests that the brain chemicals (neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine) that help in the relay of information, in patients suffering from SAD may become altered due to changes in sunlight exposure. Some health experts claim that light exposure can reset such hormonal and brain chemical imbalances.
Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder
Self-diagnosis for SAD is not recommendable at all. It is important to consult your doctor immediately if you realize some symptoms associated with seasonal depression. This will enable him/her to conduct a thorough assessment to find out if you are suffering from the condition.
Although there are some physical factors that contribute to depression, SAD usually occurs as a part of a complex psychiatric problem. With the help of a mental health professional, an evaluation of your symptoms will indicate whether you are suffering from seasonal depression or any other mood disorder.
What is the Care and Treatment?
Studies have shown that the most effective care and treatment are through the use of bright light therapy. Your doctor may also recommend antidepressants along with light therapy depending on the severity of your condition.
The light therapy is administered using a device that contains fluorescent light tubes that are white in color. The tubes are covered with plastic screen to shield ultraviolet rays. SAD patients don’t have to look directly at the tube but to light a room at a distance of 2 to 3 feet from where they are seated.
The light therapy is not only safe but also well tolerated. However, it is important to discuss it with your doctor if you are diabetic or taking some medications for another underlying condition. Bright light therapy can trigger hypomanic or manic symptoms in patients suffering from bipolar affective disorder. In such patients, the bright light therapy requires a close medical supervision.
Tips for Preventing Seasonal Depression
If you have been diagnosed with the seasonal disorder at one time, there are some things you can try to keep it at bay.
- Always use a lighting box at the start of every fall season, even if you don’t experience any symptoms associated with SAD.
- Ensure that you spend your time outside even when it is cloudy. Regular exposure to sunlight comes with several benefits.
- Consume a well-balanced diet and eat plenty of vitamins and minerals as per the recommendations of the Food and Drug Administration. This will keep you energized and curb cravings for starch and sweet foods.
- Engage in regular exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes in a day, at least thrice every week.
- Consult a mental health professional if your symptoms are severe or persist after interventions such as light box therapy.
Must Watch – Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal depression is real to some people especially those living in extreme locations away from the equator. The good news is that it can be treated or prevented with the use of light box therapy or in combination with medications.
Consult a mental health care provider if you suspect that you are suffering from SAD for a comprehensive review of your symptoms. The earlier you notice the symptoms, the easier it can be treated.