Seasons of SADness: Seasonal Affective Disorder and Its Effects
Seasons of SADness
“I went to see my doctor for a routine exam and told her, ‘I feel like a big old bear. ;I gain weight and want to sleep the whole winter away.’ I really [think] our bodies are programmed to do that, to conserve energy to get us through a long cold winter.”
— iam, Divorce 360 user
Does the above describe you? When colder weather sets in, do you find yourself feeling “like a big old bear” — depressed, easily distracted, irritable, and withdrawn? If so, you’re not alone. According to research compiled by Psychology Today, an estimated 10 million Americans are affected by seasonal depression (also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD), and an additional 10 to 20 percent may have mild SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
In the northern hemisphere, winter doesn’t officially begin until December 21st, but the weeks and months leading up to Winter Solstice can feel emotionally cold and dark for those suffering from seasonal depression.
According to Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression related to changes in seasons, and begins and ends at about the same times every year. It’s been dubbed “the winter blues” or “winter depression” but for sufferers, those descriptions can seem minimizing. Beyond the mere “blues” — Seasonal Affective Disorder can be downright debilitating, as anyone with clinical depression will attest.
While the association between mood and the seasons has long been acknowledged, it wasn’t until 1984 that the term Seasonal Affective Disorder was first used and formally described. Norman Rosenthal and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, revealed further information about the validity of SAD in 2013 during the seminar, “The Recent History of Seasonal Affective Disorder”:
“In Scandinavia it was recognized in the culture, because in the northern part of Sweden there’s a condition called lappsjuka, which means the sickness of the Lapps, which is essentially SAD. In the folk literature of Iceland they have a term called skamdegistunglindi, which means the depression of the short days. So it’s there in the cultural writings, if not in medical literature.”
Thankfully, for those who experience symptoms of SAD, physicians today acknowledge this type of depression, have conducted studies to confirm its legitimacy, and suggest various approaches for treatment.
SAD: What Are the Signs?
Here are a few common signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder*:
- Sleeping too much
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
- A tendency to overeat and/or a craving for carbohydrates
- A lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating or completing tasks
- Feelings of depression and/or irritability
- Decreased sex drive
- Withdrawal from family, friends, and social activities
*Editor’s Note: information herein is not a medical diagnosis. If you think you may be struggling with depression, you should consult with a physician immediately.
SAD: How Can It Affect Relationships?
Let’s be honest — relationships can be tough. And when any type of ;mental illness or mental disorder comes into play, these can push even the most solid relationships to the breaking point. Since four out of five people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder are women, this group especially will want to recognize how depression could be impacting their relationships.
Rosenthal describes a specific example of how one man was affected by what he presumed to be Seasonal Affective Disorder:
“In the medical literature a clear case first emerges by [Jean-Etienne] Esquirol in France of a businessman, who came to him at the beginning of the winter and said that in the last several winters he had had a depression that had come on very clearly. He was very concerned because it had influenced his judgement adversely and he was worried that he would do bad things, including violence to his family if he were not somehow treated.”
Rosenthal explains, “Every year, as the days become short and dark, people with SAD develop a predictable set of symptoms. They slow down and have a hard time waking up in the morning. Their energy level decreases, they tend to eat more, especially sweets and starches, and they gain weight. Their concentration suffers, and they withdraw from friends and family. As you can imagine, their work and relationships suffer, and they can become quite depressed… In its full form, SAD affects productivity in work or school, may affect interpersonal relationships, and causes a marked loss of interest or pleasure in most activities.”
How SAD is Treated
The situation isn’t hopeless, however.
Esquirol, whose historical account is quoted above by Rosenthal, “took the seasonal pattern seriously and made the inference that the seasons were somehow driving these recurrent winter depressions and told him that he had to go down to the south of France and from there to Italy in anticipation of the winter, to pre-empt the subsequent depression. In fact the man did so and he successfully treated the depression.”
Today, it may not be possible for seasonally depressed individuals to fly south for the winter, but physicians have come a long way in their treatment of SAD. For starters, the American Psychological Association recommends the following for managing Seasonal Affective Disorder:
1.) Experience as much daylight as possible.
2.) Eat healthily.
3.) Spend time with friends and family.
4.) Stay active.
5.) Seek professional help.
Treatment of SAD may include antidepressant medications, Vitamin D, light therapy (phototherapy), and/or behavior therapy. WebMD also recommends using a 10,000 lux light box when fall begins.
Talk to your physician to see which approach (or which combination of these) might work for you. There is no reason to suffer from the darkness, or in silence. Reach out and help yourself, and in turn, help your relationships.