The Highs and Lows of Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Seasonal Affective Disorder

“Seasons greetings” invokes a feeling of euphoria in those who live their lives waiting for the “happiest time of the year” to roll around. Some think of the fall and winter months and all they can envision is football season or a warm fire blazing while kids decorate the tree. Perhaps you hear “winter” and immediately smell cinnamon and sugar as the thought of Santa’s cookies tickles your nose.

Some people hear winter and the memories keep them warm enough to endure the cold weather.

Others hear winter and it’s all they can do to not be consumed by the long nights. For them, the “happiest time of the year” is anything but.

On the other side of the coin is spring, and surely there’s no way anyone could be upset when new life is right around the corner. The earth comes back to life as flowers bloom and the animals emerge from their slumber and the birds return from their vacation.

Instead of feeling sad, or taking the season for what it is, there are some who struggle during the spring and summer months as well. Though, instead of feeling sad, they experience episodes of manic behavior.

This, friends is what’s referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is it?

Most of the population is likely familiar with depression and the various ways it presents itself. It isn’t a blanket statement for feeling “bummed” or a base word that should be applied to mental illness as a whole. Depression isn’t a poster child.

This isn’t new information to most; however, there is still a mass of people who are likely unaware of the various forms depression can take on. One of the ways it manifests in an individual is through SAD.

SAD is related to changes in the season. It might sound more familiar when you learn it’s directly connected to the “winter blues” that usually occur during the time of year when there is less sunlight. However, it can occur in the spring and summer months as well, though instead of presenting itself with depression symptoms, it’s more likely for an individual to have episodes of manic behavior.

It usually first presents itself during young adulthood, and like depression it appears to affect more women than men. Between 4-6% of Americans report suffering from the disorder, while up to 10-20% report that they experience milder symptoms. It can stem from changes in serotonin levels, melatonin levels, and even your own biological clock (circadian rhythm).

The Difference Between the Two

At first glance, SAD appears to share many of the same symptoms as depression. It could be anything from losing interest in activities, having low energy, trouble sleeping, or struggling with fluctuating weight.

Fall/Winter Symptoms:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Change in appetite (craving carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue and tiredness

Spring/Summer Symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Agitation

SAD that occurs during the fall and winter months is usually what comes to mind to someone familiar with the term, as it’s normally referred to as seasonal depression. It’s related to a lack of sunlight, so those that experience it during this time of year are more likely to be depressed.

It might sound more familiar once you learn that SAD is directly connected to the “winter blues” that usually occurs during the time of year when there is less sunlight. However, it can also occur in the spring and summer months as well, though instead of presenting itself with depression symptoms, it’s more likely for an individual to have episodes of manic behavior (abnormally upset, agitation, increased energy, euphoria, distractibility, etc…). .

Treatment

A known contributing factor of SAD in the second half of the year is lack of sunlight. People tend to really feel the effects once the days flicker out and the nights grow longer. One way of combating the symptoms of SAD is light therapy.

Light therapy usually comes in the form of a special lamp made specifically for phototherapy. It provides the user with white fluorescent light through light tubes covered with a plastic screen to protect from ultraviolet rays.

It’s important to keep in mind that, though effective, light therapy is not a one-off treatment. Symptoms will return quickly once the lamp is shut off. It’s best not to begin light therapy too late in the day, as this treatment can cause insomnia.

One downside to light therapy is it seems to be limited to helping only those who are affected by SAD in the fall and winter months. It would actually be counterproductive for someone experiencing SAD in the spring, as being exposed to so much light can cause hypomania or manic symptoms.

What’s Next?

As of right now there’s no magic cure for those experiencing SAD. There’s no amount of Christmas cheer that’s going to make someone experiencing SAD look forward to the winter months, much like there’s no way of stopping someone from experiencing episodes of manic behavior during the spring.

There are ways of coping, though. There are ways you can help yourself or others going through it.

Don’t try to pressure them into conforming to whatever behavior you feel the season calls for. Listen to your friend who’s going through it, or your family member, or even your partner.

Everyone deserves to feel heard.

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