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When the fall months roll in, seasonal depression arrives for some people too. The Mayo Clinic website describes seasonal affective disorder as a kind of depression that happens at the same time each year. For most people, the symptoms of this depression start in the fall and carry over into the winter. By March or April, the symptoms begin to subside. People who are affected by it might be tempted to just call it the winter blues. Because SAD occurs mainly in the winter months, it can also be referred to as winter-onset depression. But SAD can also occur, although much less frequently, as summer-onset depression. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that as many as half a million people in the United States might have winter-onset depression. Women are more affected by SAD more than men, and the risk of it increases with age.
Symptoms of SAD
The Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Family Physicians list the following symptoms of SAD. Not everyone who has SAD will have the same symptoms, but these are the common ones:
- drop in energy
- social withdrawal
- loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- appetite change, especially craving sweet or starchy foods
- weight gain
- difficulty concentrating
- increased sensitivity to social rejection
Causes of SAD
The exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are not known, but the Mayo Clinic website describes three factors that likely contribute to the disorder:
Biological clock or circadian rhythm. Because there is less sunlight in the fall and winter, your body’s internal clock is disrupted. This “clock” lets your body know when to sleep or be awake. When the rhythm is disrupted by the changes in daylight, it may lead to depression.
Melatonin levels. The balance of the body’s natural hormone, melatonin, can be disrupted by the changing seasons.
Serotonin levels. A brain chemical called serotonin affects a person’s moods. Less sunlight in the winter months causes a drop in serotonin and might lead to feelings of depression.
Treatment for SAD
Don’t think that you have to go on suffering through the winter blues or seasonal funk. Make an appointment with your doctor or mental health professional because there are treatments that can help these feelings of depression.
Because SAD is related to the decreased sunlight in wintertime, one of the most successful ways to treat the depression is with light therapy, also called phototherapy. The patient sits in front of a specially-made light box or wears a light visor on the head like a cap for a prescribed amount of time each day. This SAD light imitates the natural sunlight that a person would be getting in the spring and summer months. A person should not use a tanning bed to treat SAD because of the harmful ultraviolet rays.
Doctors might use medicines in the form of antidepressants for people who suffer from SAD. Another medical option is psychotherapy, which might help a person identify and change some of the negative thoughts that are causing the depression.
How Do You Know When to See the Doctor?
If you think you have SAD and your symptoms are mild, the National Alliance on Mental Health website recommends you use more bright lamps in your home and spend more time outdoors. If the symptoms of depression are affecting your daily routine, then the next step is to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional who treats SAD. That personal can recommend the most appropriate treatment.