As fall leaves begin to change colour and the seasons begin to change in drastic ways, we can all expect the cold to kick in, the amount of sunlight to reduce, and our moods to shift as a result. This is particularly the case as folks begin to slow down in terms of their activity and choose to stay inside more in order to avoid the winter. In this period of the year, days grow shorter, light becomes scarce, and people tend to close themselves up in their homes hiding under the covers to stay warm. One of the side effects of these changes is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a category of depression that typically takes hold during particular seasons of the year – that is, they begin in the fall and increases during the winter months.
So, what exactly does Season Affective Disorder entail?
Many symptoms of SAD appear to overlap with feelings that are associated with depression such as: feeling depressed and hopeless; having a lack of energy and difficulty concentrating; experiencing changes in sleep and appetite patterns, and an overall loss of pleasure things that bring you joy and satisfaction; and dealing with suicidal death. But for those that suffer from what experts call “the winter version of SAD,” there are very specific and unique symptoms to consider such as: heaviness in arms and legs, frequent oversleeping, cravings for carbohydrate and subsequent weight gain, and problems managing relationship.
Many wonder if SAD is a milder version of depression and the short answer is: no. In fact, this is a very prevalent misconception. Rather than seeing these two disorders as one in the same, experts argue that SAD is a “specifier” of major depression – or otherwise put, a subtype of depression. Rather than experiencing these symptoms year-round, people experience the symptoms at a particular time of year – namely the winter months specifically, and with the changing of seasons more broadly. According to experts, if you have experienced these symptoms several times over two years, then it is a good idea to inquire about a diagnosis as you may suffer from SAD.
So, what do experts argue causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
While researchers do not have answers as to the specific causes for SAD, what they do know is that there are number of factors that lead to SAD. This include: a reduction in sunlight that regularly occurs with the introduction of winter into the weather cycle. The outcome of this change is that your biological clock can shift tremendously, and the brain chemical of serotonin also reduces. This is an important contributor to SAD as serotonin levels are central to regulating your mood. There is also the possibility that melatonin levels can reduce as well, which is important in regulating sleep and mood.
Some might also ask whether gender determines SAD. According to some experts, young women are often at an increased risk for SAD. As are people who live farther from the equator or have a family history of depression also experience the symptoms more frequently.
While it can be challenging to determine whether you are suffering from depression or merely SAD, it is equally as difficult to know when it is necessary to seek out medical and professional assistance. While the winter and the changes of the seasons is difficult for many, and everyone has moments when they feel sluggish or unmotivated, this might not necessarily mean that you should be worried about SAD. But of course, the only way to determine that SAD is a factor would be to inquire about symptoms, especially if it is the case that they are causing disruptions in your life. In these moments it is absolutely necessary to contact a professional. Some things to look out for is: whether your symptoms continue to occur for a number of days at a time; if there are major shifts in sleeping or eating patterns; if you find yourself to be withdrawing from your social circles and or social encounters that bring you joy; and if you find that scenarios that boost your energy and mood are no longer generating that experience any longer. If any of these happen to be occurring, experts argue that it is necessary to contact a medical professional immediately. This is particularly the case if you are using alcohol or drugs to manage and medicate any suicidal thoughts you may be having.
So, once you have determined that you may be dealing with SAD, what are the options for care and how do you go about getting the best care to address your symptoms? The first component of care is to address the issue and to remember that it is never too late to seek treatment. In fact, if you do not address the symptoms, you may be facing the possibility of your symptoms increasingly becoming worse. To determine if SAD is indeed a factor, plan to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or make an appointment with a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed counsellor. For some of you – as in the case of workers or students – you may even have cost effective or free options available as part of an employment benefit or assistance program, or student health care option.
Prior to accessing health care options, definitely intend on doing some preliminary research and question asking. Many experts recommend that in order to get the best level of care and diagnosis, you should try to learn more and engage with reading materials detailing SAD. Also, it is helpful to document your symptoms and the regularity and frequency of them, as well as any additional concerns and observations you may have about your mental and physical health. Be sure to bring any notes you may have with you once you attend your doctor’s visit.
Some important questions you may consider asking include:
- What might also be causing my symptoms instead of SAD?
- Do you recommend any treatments that you patients have found helpful in the past?
- Would you recommend a mental health provider in the community?
- Are there any behavioural changes I can make today to help my mood and overall health and well-being?
- Are there any written resources that you would recommend as I learn more about SAD?
- Would you suggest any additional changes in life-style that do not include medication or vitamins?
These are all important questions to ask when attempting to determine the nature of your disorder and how best to tackle it in order to arrive at a successful outcome. Once you arrive at your doctor’s appointment, your medical practitioner will likely conduct a physical exam or lab tests in order to rule out any other physical causes that could lead to your specific form of depression. In addition, your medical professional might also recommend that you see a mental health professional to receive a more thorough assessment – particularly in determining your present state of mind.
There are also a number of other treatments that might help you deal with SAD aside from tests and therapy assessments and visits. The fact of SAD is that it is a disorder that does not necessarily have a one-size-fits-all treatment approach. Instead, there are a number of approaches that people dealing with SAD might consider utilizing and requesting from their doctor.
- Medication – The most common solution is taking antidepressants which have proven to be effective for people with SAD. This is especially true of those who experience intense symptoms such as those of suicidal thoughts. Patients should be cognizant that medication requires patience in that it can take several weeks before you begin to feel the effects of it. And so, in this regard, it is especially important that SAD patients wait out medication for the effects rather than opting to take the medication if you do not immediately feel better. It is also important to note that patients should consult with their doctor regarding in any changes of dosage, or any experiences of side effects.
- Psychotherapy – Talk therapy can be an invaluable option and experience for those with SAD because a psychotherapist can help you identify patterns in negative thinking and behaviour. They can also provide suggestions as to how you can develop positive ways of coping with symptoms, and institute relaxation techniques that will lead to restoring lost energy.
- Light therapy – Phototherapy is also a healthy alternative that involves exposing oneself to light via a special box or lamp. This device produces similar effects to natural light which of course is extremely beneficial to those diagnosed with SAD. This technique helps by triggering chemicals in your brain that help regulate your mood and therefore can positively address SAD. Experts argue that this treatment has proven effective especially for those who experience the winter version of SAD, which may be milder than other forms of depression, but certainly can also be debilitating in some cases.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for SAD related symptoms, contact us today.