Damn my sleep is off. My mood is off. Must be all the snow on the ground, right? But the sun is out! We just shifted the clock forward and got more blue sky in the evening too. What gives? For me, and many of my clients, it’s the cycle of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It may be for you too. Let’s review.
SAD is a type of chemical depression related to the change in the season. For most people it begins and ends about the same time every year, typically starting in the fall and lasting through the long winter months. Like I described, it leaves you feeling moody and sapped of energy. While it’s less common, we do see a number of people who develop SAD in the spring and early summer too.
We don’t really know what causes SAD, but here are three basic ideas that are generally accepted. First, your biological clock and sleep rhythm – or circadian rhythm – are thrown off due to the change in sunlight. Second, a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that affects mood, may drop due to changes in in sunlight. Third, melatonin, which plays a major role in sleep patterns, may fall out of balance due to sunlight changes.
In the winter, most people find their depression includes things like:
- Low frustration tolerance to relationship stress
- Hyper-somnia (oversleeping)
- Craving foods high in carbohydrates and subsequent weight gain
- Sense if heaviness in arms and legs
For those like me who get the spring and summer SAD, you might experience the following:
- Poor appetite and subsequent weight loss
- Agitation and anxiety (yup, that one fits for me in spades!)
You may be at higher risk for SAD if you are female (though men tend to have more severe symptoms), are younger (SAD affects older adults less often), have a family history of SAD among blood relatives, have clinical depression or bi-polar disorder, or live far from the equator (like here in Baltimore where we keep getting hit with frigid temperatures and mounds of snow that keep our kids out of school for what seems to be weeks at a time). As you can see, SAD made me a little cranky.
What can help? Light box therapy is helpful for many. Medication and talk therapy are also supportive. Making your home a brighter place is recommended, along with spending more time outside during daylight hours, as well as regular exercise. Other mind-body treatments like acupuncture, yoga, meditation, guided imagery and massage therapy are also a good idea.
We all have bad days that look like SAD. But when it lasts for several days in a row, you should see a therapist and/or doctor for help, especially if you are feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, or turning to self-harm behaviors like an eating disorder, or cutting to comfort or numb yourself out.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.