Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): What is it?
Seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression which affects an individual in a particular season every year. Anyone can experience SAD, especially those living in places where winter is relatively long or in areas where the amount of daylight is very little in various seasons. Surprisingly, women are the most prone to SAD. Also, people between 15 to 55 are at high risk of experiencing SAD. The risk of getting this depression decreases as a person gets older.
What are the possible causes of SAD?
Health experts are not yet sure about the exact causes of the seasonal affective disorder but they believe that it has something to do with the lack of sunlight received by an individual. Doctors claim that the lack of sunlight could upset the sleep-wake cycle and all the other circadian rhythms such as the balance of body fluids, body temperature and the way other systems in the body functions. It could also affect the brain and cause problems with serotonin, a brain chemical which influences a person’s mood.
What are the signs or symptoms of having SAD?
Symptoms of SAD may appear and disappear about the same time each year. Most people with the depressions begin to show symptoms around September or October and end around April or May. A person with seasonal affective disorder may have the following signs:
- Losing interest in usual activities
- Feeling of sadness, grumpiness, anxiousness or being moody
- Eating more and craving foods rich in carbohydrates such as pasta and bread
- Gaining weight
- Sleeping longer and feeling drowsy during the day
How does a doctor diagnose a person with SAD?
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between seasonal affective disorder and the non-seasonal depression because these two have many similar symptoms. If you consult your doctor, he will ask you if you have undergone through the following situations:
- You have experienced depression around the same season and have felt better when the season changed for at least two consecutive years.
- You have shown symptoms which often occur with the disorder like gaining weight, sleeping longer than usual and craving carbs-rich foods.
- Someone close to you has SAD -- a parent, sibling or close friend.
How is SAD treated?
There are several ways to treat seasonal affective disorder such as with light therapy, psychotherapy and medications. If a patient has bipolar disorder, the doctor will be more careful in handling the case because light therapy and some medications like antidepressants can potentially trigger an episode of depression.
Light therapy- Also known as “phototherapy,” the patient is seated a few feet away from a specialized light therapy apparatus. The bright light imitates natural sunlight and it prompts the brain to produce serotonin. There are two types of light therapy: the bright light treatment and the dawn simulation.
- Bright light treatment- the patient sits in front of the light box for about half an hour or longer.
- Dawn simulation- a dim light is used while the person sleeps and the light gets brighter over time, mimicking the sunrise.
- This therapy works effectively for many people with SAD and it’s very easy to use. Patients claim to feel better within a week after the light therapy but they need to use the light box every day until the next season to keep the depression from coming back.
Psychotherapy- This is another effective option to treat SAD. It can help you identify your negative behaviors and thoughts and change these for the better. The doctor can also give you some healthy ways to cope with SAD and manage your stress. Here are some of the tips you can use to deal with stress:
- Take time to go outside. Don’t just curl up on your bed. Go outside and take a long walk or jog around the neighborhood; eat lunch at your favorite restaurant, or simply head to the park and sit on the bench and feel the sunshine and the breeze.
- Turn your environment into something brighter and sunnier. Open your window and breathe in fresh air. Trim the branches of the tree that is blocking sunlight to your bedroom.
- Exercise on a regular basis. Physical activities can help you relieve stress. Also, a healthier and fitter body can make you feel better too.
Medication- If the symptoms are severe, the doctor may prescribe some medications to help the individual cope up with SAD. Doctors usually prescribe using the treatment before the symptoms start to show.
Alternative medicine- To relieve stress, some people resort to alternative medicine and other processes such as acupuncture, meditation, yoga, massage therapy and guided imagery. Vitamins and supplements that have been known to help with SAD include the following: 5-HTP, Vitamin D, Melatonin, SAMe and St John's Wort.
Other than the treatments, a person with SAD can also manage their depression by doing these simple yet effective steps:
- Taking care of yourself- This is the basic step for you to battle depression. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest everyday. Set aside enough time for physical activities. Eat regularly and make sure that what you put in your mouth is healthy. Cut down alcohol intake and if you can, quit smoking.
- Follow your treatment plan religiously- If you want to get better, take medications as directed by your doctor and attend therapies as scheduled.
- Take time to socialize with other people- You should exert effort in relating and connecting with other people. Friends and relatives can give you support and make your life more fun.
- Manage your stress- It’s the perfect time to learn some tips and tricks in managing stress from several sources. If you aren’t able to manage your stress well, it can lead to overeating, depression and other unhealthy behaviors.
- Set a vacation and take a trip away from the city- Plan your winter vacation and head to a place that’s warm, sunny and fun. On the other hand, if you have summer seasonal affective disorder, choose a place where it's cool and comfortable.