With winter fast approaching, our days have gotten short, and our nights have gotten long; accompanied by chilly air, rain, and snow. It’s dark when we wake up, and dark by the time we get home, and often, this time of year, it is not unusual to hear people complaining of feeling down. This is a common and well-documented condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It characteristically starts in the fall, and can persist into the winter months (however, it can also occur in the spring and summer as well), often resolving when the weather starts to turn. SAD is characterized by fatigue or lack of energy and moodiness, typically. Other symptoms include: hypersomnia (sleeping too much), craving for high fat/high carbohydrate foods, irritability, and weight gain. It symptoms generally tend to start out mild and gets worse as the season progresses. The reason for this phenomenon is not completely understood, but it is thought to be due to decreased sunlight. Approximately 500,000 people in the United States suffer from SAD, and the prevalence varies largely due to weather and amounts of sunlight in different states (1.4% in Florida, and 9.9% in Alaska). Eating a healthy diet, and trying to stay active during the winter can be particularly challenging during these months, but it is one of the best ways to help with the symptoms of SAD. It does not generally tend to require treatment with medications, and light therapy (light boxes that use non-UV light, and is brighter than indoor lighting, but not as bright as sunlight) has also been proven to be very helpful.
While we are on the subject of mental health, it is also important to know the difference between Seasonal Affective Disorder and depression. There has been a lot of talk about mental health and depression lately in popular media, which is really important, because it has started a dialogue about a topic that has long been taboo. Almost 7% of the population in the United States suffers from depression, and it is believed that as many as 35% of people will suffer from depression at some point in their lifetime.
Depression differs from SAD in that it is much more insidious, is not associated with the seasons, and persists for an extended period of time. It is characterized by a depressed mood, that is: sadness, emptiness, tearfulness, or irritability. There is a loss of interest and pleasure in nearly all activities, fatigue, significant weight gain or loss (when not dieting), decreased or increased appetite, change in sleep habits (either too much or too little), feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and ideation of death or suicide. Startlingly, twice as many women suffer from major depression than men. There are several factors that put women at higher risk, including hormonal changes (puberty and menopause), pregnancy, and pregnancy loss. With depression, the tasks of everyday life become difficult and sometimes impossible to complete. In some cases of depression, depressive behaviors and symptoms may not be noticed by the individual, but by someone close to them, such as a spouse or parent.
The symptoms of depression can be helped with counseling, medications, exercise, as well as other complementary treatment methods. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, there is help available. It is not always easy to admit that we may be suffering emotionally, but it is imperative to seek professional help. Make an appointment with your doctor, or locate a licensed mental health professional at Anxiety and Depression Association of America.