Seasonal Affective Disorder – Symptoms, Treatments, & Counseling

Season Affect Disorder

Do you find that as the Fall season begins and the days get shorter, you are feeling fatigue, depression, irritability, inadequate sleep, crying spells, loss of sex drive, decrease in energy, over eating, and difficulty in concentration? You may be suffering from a disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

What is Seasonal Affect Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs when there are seasonal changes. In most cases SAD symptoms can occur when the days grow shorter in the Fall heading into Winter and go away in the sunny day of Spring into Summer. It begins and ends the same time each year. It has been found that people react to the loss of sunlight as the season moves into cooler weather. The loss of sunlight can cause changes in your serotonin levels which can affect mood and bring on depression. The lack of sunlight can also cause changes in our melatonin levels which plays a role in our sleep patterns and mood. There are some that suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder during the Spring to summer seasonal change.

There are 1-10% of adults in the United States that are affected by this disorder. It is four times more common in women than men. People who have a family history of Seasonal Affective Disorder may be more likely to experience it or another form of depression.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

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The symptoms of SAD include fatigue, depression, irritability, feelings of agitation, inadequate sleep, feeling hopeless, crying spells, loss of sex drive, decrease in energy, over eating, and difficulty in concentration. The symptoms typically begin in the Fall and taper off in the Spring as the days get brighter. The symptoms get more intense during the darkest of months and/or middle of winter. Scientists continue to study the cause of Seasonal Affective disorder. They have found that bright light changes the chemicals in the brain. They are not sure why this occurs. Low levels of vitamin D are found to be associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

There are some forms of treatment that can be helpful in decreasing symptoms of SAD but also aid in preventative measures. It is important to keep in touch and involved with your social circle and family during this time. Try to eat a healthy diet and exercise at least an hour 3 times per week.

Treatment for SAD

  • One form of treatment is to have regular exposure to bright light such as fluorescent light. The bright light can significantly improve depression with people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder. For the best results it is recommended that you expose yourself to bright light in morning and then during the evening on a daily basis during those Fall/ Winter seasons.

  • The light therapy is also known as phototherapy. There are light boxes that are sold commercially to treat SAD. The box contains white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. The individual does not need to look directly into the light, but can read or eat while sitting in front of box at a distance of 2-3 feet for approximately 30 minutes daily. Researchers have found that morning light therapy is more Affective than evening. Evening light therapy may cause insomnia for some people. Light therapy should be done throughout the entire season. Most people report that they feel an improvement in 2-4 days and reach full benefits within 2 weeks. The light in the box is 25 times brighter than normal room light. Light therapy is generally safe. However, there are some medical conditions, such as Diabetes and retinopathies, that doctors advise against light therapy because of the potential risk of damage to the retina of the eyes. Individuals with Bipolar Disorder should be cautious in utilizing light therapy because it can cause hypomanic or manic symptoms.

  • Another form of treatment is antidepressant medication such as seratonin selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s). Examples of SSRI’s are Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Paxil. Acupuncture is an alternative treatment for those reluctant to use antidepressant medication.

  • Psychotherapy is another effective treatment for people who experience Seasonal Affective disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is something to take serious. If gone untreated, it can lead to suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, social withdrawal, and difficulty in school/work. Treatment can help decrease the symptoms of SAD so you can live a healthy and productive life.

About the author: Sharon M. Walsh, MSW, LCSW

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