By Marie Garry, MA, LMHC
For many of us the winter blues consists of complaints about the weather, mornings where we want to stay in bed, warm and cozy, or feeling restless with cabin fever. For others the winter season affects them significantly and presents a greater challenge due to SADS. SADS, or seasonal affective disorder is a clinical condition that is estimated to affect approximately 2% to 9% of the population. Those who live in the Northern latitudes seem to be most affected. Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by episodes of depression that occur most frequently during the fall or winter and then resolve as spring and summer begin. For an official diagnosis you need to have experienced this for at least 2 consecutive seasons. Symptoms may include:
- Depressed mood
- Afternoon slumps with decreased energy and concentration
- Increased appetite, strong cravings for carbohydrates which can lead to weightgain
- Increased sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness
- Lack of energy and loss of interest in work or other activities
- Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement, body aches
- Social withdrawal and a tendency to isolate
- Unhappiness and irritabilityThe symptoms of SADS typically begin in the fall although some begin to experience symptoms as early as August. Untreated, symptoms will continue into the spring months and generally disappear during the summer. There is a less common type of SADS, reverse seasonal affective disorder that occurs during the summer months and is characterized by insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, irritability and increased anxiety. People of all ages can develop SADS and women seem to be much more significantly impacted then men.
The likely cause of SADS include:
- Disruptions in an individual’s internal clock, i.e. circadian rhythm due to reduced sunlight.
- Melatonin levels, which are important for maintaining sleep patterns and mood, may be disrupted by the change of season.
Serotonin levels may drop, due to the reduced sunlight during the fall and winter seasons, affecting a person’s mood.
SADS is a treatable condition. Light therapy when used on a consistent basis seems to be effective for many who experience SADS. A special light box can be purchased and daily exposure for 30 – 60 minutes at a time is recommended. You can find excellent information about purchasing a light box at the Mayo Clinic website which is mayoclinic.com. Exposure to light therapy has been associated with the triggering of manic or hypomanic symptoms in some so consulting with your physician is advised before beginning treatment. Dawn simulation, where a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep and gets brighter over time may be helpful for regulating sleep cycles but has not been shown to be as helpful for reducing a depressed mood as the more conventional light box. Increasing time spent outdoors especially when the sun is out is recommended but unfortunately in winter climates this is often not an option. Antidepressants combined with talk therapy may be helpful if light therapy does not seem to significantly improve your mood.
If you suspect you have SADS or any other type of depression don’t wait. There are many things that can be done to help you feel better. A meeting with your doctor or a licensed mental health professional can help you to plan a treatment approach that will be most effective for you. You and those who love you will be glad you did!