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Feeling sad? It could be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

February 23, 2012 - 9:59am

Winter – even a winter without much snow – can seem eternally long after the new year.  For some people, the winter ‘doldrums’ are something more intense.  SAD—or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is the term used to describe a particular type of melancholy or depression most often associated with the winter months. Have you been feeling sad lately? If could be seasonal depression.

Storm Clouds and Gray Skies-- What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Those who live in areas where winter nights are long are most at risk for developing SAD.  An early setting sun can throw off the body’s natural rhythm and result in brain changes that affect mood.

Sunshine/light deprivation has also been known to decrease serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite and sleep, can contribute to depression if levels are reduced or altered.  

Symptoms of SAD typically build slowly during the winter months and can include:

  • Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Increased sleep and daytime sleepiness (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
  • Less energy and ability to concentrate in the afternoon
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities
  • Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
  • Social withdrawal
  • Unhappiness and irritability

Let There Be Light! -- Treating SAD

While there is no test to determine whether your sad feelings are due to SAD, the same methods used to treat other forms of depression can be effective in treating this seasonal disorder.

If your SAD systems are severe, steps that may include counseling and/or medication should be explored with your physician to determine whether they are appropriate steps.

But if you have a mild case of the blues, the following techniques may help you emerge from the big chill of the cold weather months.

  • Staying active, both socially and physically are valuable ways to banish the blues. Taking regular, long walks during daylight hours, especially first thing in the morning, may help you have more energy and feel less depressed. 
  • Brighten your days.  At home or work, this can mean adding light to your environment by opening curtains and blinds and sitting closer to windows.  It can also mean making an effort to get busy with activities that lift your spirits, like visiting with friends, pursuing a hobby, or treating yourself to a massage.  
  • Light therapy, another way to treat SAD, involves the use of a special fluorescent lamp designed to mimic light from the sun.  Patients using light therapy typically spend a half hour each morning sitting near (never under) the lamp, and they tend to feel an improvement within 3-4 weeks of treatment.

Light therapy does come with the risk of side-effects, more commonly eye-strain, headache, increased sensitivity to light and psoriasis.  Less common side effects include mania and the possible onset of other psychological disorders such as bi-polar disorder.  For these reasons, you should explore light therapy only under the instruction of your physician. 

If you have questions about SAD or are experiencing feelings of depression, the family- and internal-medicine doctors  at MetroWest Physician Services are here for you. Make an appointment today.

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Photo Credit: Ohlittleheart