Do you feel depressed, tired and lethargic when fall rolls around with its short, blustery days and seemingly interminable nights? If this situation is temporary, you have nothing to worry about. However, if it comes back systematically year after year and lasts until spring, you could be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of cyclic depression that generally appears towards the end of the fall season when the days become shorter, and disappears in the spring when the days become longer. This is called winter depression or winter SAD. However, you might be surprised to know that people can actually have an inversed cycle with symptoms appearing in the spring and disappearing in the fall. This is called summer depression or summer SAD.
People who suffer from winter SAD often present the following symptoms: depression, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, tendency to sleep more than usual, loss of energy, tendency to socially isolate themselves, increased appetite and weight gain, loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy, and difficulty concentrating and processing information. On the other hand, individuals suffering from summer SAD tend to be increasingly anxious and irritable, suffer from insomnia, feel agitated, have poorer appetite and lose weight, and have an increased sex drive.
Although the exact causes of SAD remain unknown, the culprits likely include genetic factors, age, the circadian rhythm and variations in levels of serotonin and melatonin. The circadian rhythm is the physiological process that helps regulate the body’s internal clock, serotonin is a neurotransmitter, and melatonin is a sleep-related hormone. Some evidence suggests that people who live in Northern countries are probably more at risk of suffering from SAD. This is likely due to the fact that the variations between daylight in the summer and in the winter are more pronounced. There also seems to be a potential hereditary component to SAD. And even though women are typically more at risk of suffering from SAD, men generally experience more severe symptoms.
Because SAD is linked to a lack of exposure to daylight, light is usually at the core of its treatment. Hence, it is recommended that people who suffer from this type of depression increase their exposure to natural light by going outside every day for example, or by working close to a window whenever possible. There is also a treatment called light therapy in which “light boxes” are used to expose a sufferer to intense light, compensating for the lack of natural light. In certain cases, antidepressants and psychotherapy may also be beneficial.
Your mood tends to darken with the arrival of fall? Expose yourself to as much natural light as possible by opening the curtains in your house and spending time outside every day. Be physically active, because physical activity has a positive impact on stress, anxiety and self-esteem. These three parameters are often the building blocks of problems of depression like SAD. Learn to manage stress and try to be as socially active as you can, do not isolate yourself in a corner. Having a good support system composed of family and friends is good for your health. Finally, if you can afford it, fly somewhere sunny and warm this winter and stock-up on sunshine!
Let there be light this winter!