It's the most wonderful time of the year, right? The holidays represent laughter and love, joy and celebration, but what if you don't feel happy and joyful? For 10 to 20 percent of Americans, the colder, shorter days of winter can bring on the condition commonly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
What is SAD?
SAD causes people to experience a significant mood change — either depression or mania — at specific times of the year. Most people experience SAD-related depressive episodes in the fall and winter, however, seasonal pattern depression can also be triggered in late spring or early summer.
Although the specific causes of SAD aren't known, experts think it is linked to the amount of daylight during a specific time of year, as opposed to everyday stressors or major life events. SAD can occur in people of all ages, but it is more often seen in young women.
"Seasonal pattern depression is a concern for anyone who experiences it because the symptoms affect how you are able to function," says Amber Salvador, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. "Especially in the fall and winter, you might feel more irritable, anxious, sad and tired, and experience headaches, low energy, a feeling of heaviness, increased appetite and weight gain. These all impact your motivation and productivity during this time."
How is SAD treated?
Treatment for SAD ranges from light therapy to medicine and behavior therapy. Light therapy may entail use of a light box or light visor for a certain amount of time each day during the seasons when you are most affected by SAD. A dawn simulator, another form of light therapy, is a timer-activated light that simulates the natural sunrise in your bedroom, gradually brightening until you wake up.
Dr. Salvador recommends that you seek treatment, regardless of whether you might be experiencing seasonal pattern depression or major depression in general.
"You should seek treatment when the symptoms begin to consume your thoughts in ways such as a fixation on negative situations or suicidal thinking; or influence your behaviors like turning to negative coping methods such as isolating, excessive drinking or drugs. You should also talk with someone when these symptoms can lead to problems like having trouble getting out of bed, calling out from work and not completing normal daily tasks."
Along with treatment, Dr. Salvador recommends the following three ways you can help decrease your symptoms of SAD:
- Make your environment bright and sunny, and spend time in rooms with more light.
Get outside in the sun — taking walks, going to the park or strolling on the beach.
- Exercise. Movement is very vital to releasing negative energy and toxins. It helps release endorphins, those natural feel-good chemicals in the brain that improve mood and decrease depression and anxiety.
Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about your own mental health or the mental health of a loved one. Together, you can determine an appropriate treatment plan that can help you enjoy the changing of the seasons.