As I write this, the flurries of snow outside my window quietly announce their first arrival for the season. Time, I am reminded, to prepare myself for what lies ahead. Winter is here. When flurries become blankets, a rush of anticipation runs through my mind and everything seems fresh, gleaming, pristine. Then I venture outdoors into the winter weather and it catches my breath with a feeling of renewal and hopeful anticipation. Festive lights, holiday cheer, family gatherings. Not everyone shares these thoughts and emotions this time of year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinical mental disorder that affects between 10 and 20% of the adult population, at least to a mild degree. Approximately 5% suffer from its more severe effects. Women outnumber men who suffer from it by a ratio of 4 to 1 and statistics show that the farther one lives from the sun, viz., geographically distant from the equator, especially in the northern hemisphere, the more prevalent this condition is. And while most people get SAD in the fall and winter seasons, 10% of the population who suffer from it, paradoxically, fall prey to its effects in the spring and summer. People who suffer from depression or other mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, are especially susceptible to SAD.
Although SAD is mostly a disorder among adults, according to a wellness blog by Renown Health, one million children in the U.S. also have it. Because children often don’t manifest symptoms the same as adults the signs to look for include increased irritability, complaints about headaches or stomach aches, and, especially for children with ADHD, increased inattentiveness. For adolescents, SAD is more likely to show in their academic performance or ability to get up in the morning as well as some of the classic symptoms of depression such as a decreased interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, and an increase in appetite, especially for foods high in carbohydrates.
What is SAD and What Causes it?
Seasonal Affective Disorder has all the symptoms of major depression. The only difference between them is that SAD, unlike clinical depression per se, occurs on a seasonal cycle. A survey of its symptoms, therefore, constitutes all the symptoms that define major depressive disorder. They include symptoms of fatigue, sadness, loss of interest and enjoyment in life, poor concentration, insomnia and hypersomnia (sleeping too much), excessive appetite (especially for carbohydrates), feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. In order for a diagnosis of SAD to be rendered, these symptoms must be present at least two weeks in duration.
It is believed that SAD which is caused by the effects of diminished exposure to sunlight may be explained by the way our brain is influenced by light and the physiological functions of the body that are cyclical in nature. According to her blog, “Everything You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder,” (November 4, 2015) crosstalk.cell.com, Jennifer Levine cites studies that have shown how the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences mood, is especially affected by changes of the seasons in people diagnosed with SAD. Scientists further speculate, says Levine, that a region of the brain known as the dorsal raphe nucleus which regulates our circadian rhythms, as influenced by the natural hormone, melatonin, might be a contributing factor as well.
How Do We Treat SAD?
Although there isn’t much we can do about the climate in the region where we live that determines how much sunshine we can be exposed to, beyond the salubrious effects of vacationing in the tropical islands every winter, there are several ways one may modify its effects on our mood. The following is a list, many of which may be found on the website of the American Psychological Association that gets updated regularly, of ideas you may use to prevent getting the winter blues, or worse, Seasonal Affective Disorder:
Robert Hamm Ph.D