Every season brings about some measure of difficulty – it’s too hot, too cold, too wet – but for some people, going into a particular season brings about an acute form of depression. Perhaps the reduced amount of sunlight depletes them of their energy, diminishes their desire to do things they once enjoyed, or deprives them of a good night’s sleep. This condition is known as seasonal affective disorder.
The Mechanics of Seasonal Affective Disorder
While seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) can develop as a response to any seasonal transition, it most commonly occurs in late fall and winter. This is the time of year that the days get shorter, which in turn disrupts sleep patterns, and presents symptoms typical of seasonal affective disorder:
- Inability to concentrate
- Irritability and agitation
Without sufficient sunlight – especially if a patient has to work indoors during the few precious hours of sunlight, or if they move to an area of the world that doesn’t see the sun at all during the winter months – the human body cannot produce the required amount of vitamin D, which Psychology Today calls “the sunshine vitamin” in an article entitled “Vitamin D Deficiency and Depression.”
In true seasonal affective disorder, the symptoms dissipate once the seasons change again, and the factors that triggered the SAD – reduced sunlight, cold weather, etc. – have been replaced.
Seasonal affective disorder may also be due to a biochemical imbalance in the brain that is triggered by a lack of consistent sunlight. The American Psychiatric Association warns that this may upset circadian rhythms, making the person unable to fall asleep during the night, and being constantly exhausted and fatigued during the day.
Particular to seasonal affective disorder is that the patient experiences cravings for food rich in carbohydrates. This may be due to an unconscious desire for comfort food to boost their mood when their SAD is in full effect. As with other forms of depression, this can lead to unwanted weight gain, which is not only a sign of possible SAD, but can be a cause for depression in and of itself (if there are concurrent body image issues at play).
With over 500,000 Americans being affected by seasonal affective disorder, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent are women. SAD is about four times more common in women than men; however, the Mayo Clinic warns that men may have more severe SAD symptoms.
How Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Be Treated?
In addition to the usual approaches of psychotherapy and medication, seasonal affective disorder has a unique treatment method. It’s called light therapy, where a patient sits next to a special “light box” for 30 minutes every day after they wake up. The light box stimulates high-intensity sunlight, so a regular house lamp or other source of illumination will not be sufficient. Light therapy like this would start whenever the patient’s symptoms begin, which is usually around the onset of fall, and the person would do this every day throughout fall and winter until the spring and/or summer.
Comprehensive treatment of seasonal affective disorder will also involve a course of antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and bupropion (Wellbutrin), which studies, like this one published in the American Family Physician journal, have shown to be effective in helping patients deal with SAD.
Lastly, there is also psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps patients identify the thoughts and feelings that predict the onset of seasonal affective disorder. With a doctor’s help and insight, the patient can learn from that identification process and develop coping skills to better manage their SAD.
It can be difficult trying to adjust to the change, and Black Bear Lodge understands that. Our professionals can help diagnose if you are experiencing a mental health condition; and if you are, treatment can help you find a healthy new life in recovery. Call us for more information.