On 11:16 AM by NY Drs. Urgent Care
The Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Do you gain weight and get blue, miserable, and tired once the days get shorter? These are all symptoms of a condition called seasonal affective disorder.
People who find they have mild to severe depression in fall and winter, when the days grow shorter, may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — sometimes called the winter blues. Women, especially those in their twenties, are most susceptible to seasonal affective disorder, but it can affect men and people of all ages, including children and teens. Very often, people with seasonal depression have at least one close relative with a psychiatric disorder, typically major depressive disorder or alcohol abuse.
SAD symptoms emerge during the darker winter months, then disappear as days grow longer and brighter come spring, says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and an assistant professor at Harvard University Medical School.
It's estimated that a half-million people in the United States may have seasonal depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Weight gain. Cravings for sweet and starchy foods lead to excess weight.
- Daytime fatigue. People with SAD are tired during the day and have less energy. They may also find themselves sleeping a lot, but getting no relief from their fatigue. “With SAD, you eat more and sleep more,” Dr. Duckworth says. “It’s hibernation-like.”
- Increased irritability and anxiety. People with SAD worry more about everyday events and can be easily irritated. They can have trouble concentrating, too.
- Social withdrawal. Those with SAD prefer to be alone; they shun the company of friends and family and do not participate in activities they normally enjoy. Often their social behavior is hard to understand.
SAD is treatable, and there are various treatment methods.
SAD: Light Therapy
“Light therapy does seem to have some effectiveness,” Duckworth says. Light therapy boxes are available that mimic the outdoors. You can buy them without a prescription, but they cost about $400 and are not covered by insurance.
The best time to use light therapy is in the morning. “You sit in front of the box in the morning before going to work and give yourself some sunshine,” Duckworth says. Light therapy typically takes about 30 minutes a day. Note: Do not try to use tanning beds as a treatment for SAD. Tanning beds use ultraviolet rays, which can be harmful to your eyes and your skin.
SAD: Professional Help
“Find a relationship with a clinician who can coach you through this and figure out if it is indeed SAD or if you do worse at Christmastime because your father died on Christmas Eve, for example,” Duckworth says.
A medical professional also can prescribe antidepressants if necessary.
SAD: Other Treatment Methods
- Taking a vacation to where it’s warm and sunny. “Go to Florida or to the Bahamas. Go some place south with a lot of sun,” Duckworth says. “If you can take a vacation to a sunny climate it likely will help.”
- Maintaining relationships with friends and family. “Don’t stop going to church if you go to church,” Duckworth says. “If your family is a big source of stress, figure out a way to be with them that is not overwhelming to you. Maybe plan your longer visits for the summer when you seem to be doing better.”
Because SAD occurs during the winter months — when holiday festivities are in full force — self-medication is tempting.
“Alcohol use tends to go up in the winter as people attend more parties,” Duckworth says. However, he says, “If you’re using alcohol or drugs to change the depressed way you feel this time of year, it’s probably compounding your problems as opposed to helping them.”
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