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 your ability to function declines," says Maricar Jenkins, a licensed clinical social worker at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. "Especially in the fall and winter, you might feel more irritable, anxious, sad, lethargic and might even gain weight because of increased appetite and decreased physical activity. These variables can reduce motivation and productivity in different areas of life."
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.
Jenkins recommends that you seek treatment, regardless of whether you might be experiencing seasonal pattern depression or major depression in general. Specifically, seeking professional help is indicated when symptoms begin to negatively impact your functioning, such that you notice the following:
- Negative self-talk
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Social isolation
- Substance abuse
Along with treatment, Jenkins recommends the following three strategies to 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, because it releases endorphins. Endorphins are 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.