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Defining and Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

January 26, 2017 | Rachel Velishek, LPCC

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seasonal affective disorderDo you seem to get the “winter blues” at the same time each year? That annual feeling may be the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Symptoms of SAD usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April. However, some people may start to “slump” in August and symptoms remain well into January.

SAD includes depressive episodes that are usually mild to moderate, but can be severe. Classic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain. Some individuals may experience other depressive symptoms including decreased sexual interest, hopelessness, helplessness, suicidal thoughts, low motivation, low self-esteem, isolation, withdrawal and lack of interest in normal activities.

The specific cause of SAD is unknown. Some relevant factors to consider include:

  • Biological clock (circadian rhythm): The decrease in sunlight may disrupt an individual’s internal clock and lead to depressive symptoms.
  • Serotonin levels: Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. Reduced sunlight may cause a drop in serotonin which may trigger depressive symptoms.
  • Melatonin levels: The change in season may disrupt the balance of the body’s melatonin, which affects sleep patterns and mood.

Some individuals diagnosed with SAD find that light therapy has helped reduce severity, frequency and duration of symptoms. It is especially beneficial for those who choose not to use antidepressant medication.

Light therapy consists of regular daily exposure to a light box. The light boxes are created for daily use, can be expensive and may not necessarily be covered by insurance. Spending extra time outside, or turning on lamps throughout the home is not as effective as the light therapy.

An individual experiencing symptoms of SAD should notify their Primary Care Physician. Some PCP may want to refer people with SAD to a psychiatrist for treatment of the illness, which is more common for people with complex psychiatric illness or more severe symptoms.

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