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Seasonal Affective Disorder: What is it exactly?

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Is there any such thing?

seasonal affective disorderSeasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may be the tired feeling and depressed mood that some people commonly experience in the winter time. Seasonal Affective Disorder may be experienced by six of every 100 people in the United States according to statistics by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Another 10% to 20% may experience some mild form of SAD. It seems to be more common in women than men and although some children and teenagers get SAD, it usually doesn’t start in people younger than 20 years of age.  For adults, the risk of SAD decreases as they get older.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in northern geographic regions.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Where does it come from and what are the symptoms?

Physicians and mental health clinicians began to recognize Seasonal Affective Disorder when it was noticed that animals as well as humans react to the changing seasons in mood and behavior. Most people have a tendency to eat and sleep a little more in the winter and dislike the dark mornings and short days. For some, it seems to have a more intense effect in disrupting their lives and causing significant distress. The actual symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:

 

  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods

  • Weight gain

  • A heavy feeling in the arms or legs

  • A drop in energy level

  • Fatigue

  • A tendency to oversleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability

  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection

  • Avoidance of social situations

The symptoms tend to start around September of each year lasting until April, and seem to be at their worst in the darkest months. The problem seems to stem from a lack of bright light in the winter. Researchers have proven that bright light makes a difference to the brain chemistry, although they are not sure by what means that sufferers are affected.  It is not psychosomatic or an imaginary illness.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Is there treatment available?

Find a beach or a place to ski. While going to a brightly-lit climate or snowy slope is indeed a cure, many people do not have that opportunity. As the cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is due to a lack of bright light, the treatment in many cases may be to use bright light every day using a light box or similar light therapy device. The objective is to allow the light to reach the eyes for between a 1/4 and 3/4 of an hour daily to alleviate the symptoms. If light therapy works you’ll probably need to continue it until enough sunlight is available, typically in the springtime.  Caution should be used for individuals with some psychiatric illnesses including manic depression.  Tanning beds should not be used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder due to the damaging effects of the ultraviolet rays on both your eyes and skin.  Other alternatives may include behavior therapy or medicine to treat symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. If light therapy or medicine alone doesn’t work, your doctor may want to use them together.

By Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist  

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