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Seasonal Affective Disorder

By:  Sherry J. Anderson, Director of Professional Outreach

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually in the winter months.  The shorter days and colder weather of winter can make anyone feel down, especially if you live a long distance from the equator.  The reduced light, warmth, and color of winter can leave you feeling melancholy, irritable or tired.  If these feelings recur each year, making it tough to function during the winter months and then subside in spring or early summer, you could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.  SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life.

Signs and symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sluggish or agitated
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Some of the causes of SAD can be attributed to:

Your biological clock-circadian rhythm.  The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter months can cause winter-onset.  The decrease in sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.

Melatonin levels.  The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in mood and sleep patterns.

Serotonin levels.  A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical neurotransmitter that affects mood, could play a role in SAD.  Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that can trigger depression.

For people with bipolar disorder, the fall and winter months can be a time of depression; spring and summer months can bring on symptoms of mania or a less form of mania, hypomania.

More women are diagnosed than men.  SAD occurs more frequently in 18-35 year olds.  As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person, often depending on genetic vulnerability and geographic location.  To be clinically diagnosed with SAD, you need to have experienced these cyclical symptoms for two or more consecutive years.  Treatment can help prevent complications.  Regardless of the timing or persistence of your symptoms, if your depression feels overwhelming and is adversely affecting your life, it’s time to seek help from a doctor or therapist.

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