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Let the Sun Shine: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

By:  Maura L. Johnson, LCSW, PMH-C

     As my eight-year-old daughter opened each square of her advent calendar in December, her excitement growing as Christmas drew closer, I silently counted down those days myself. While the holiday brings some level of excitement for me, I had a less common date in mind: the Winter Solstice. On December 21, the shortest day of the year, darkness falls at its earliest time and begins to fall later with each passing day. As someone coping with a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately known as SAD), knowing longer days are coming always brings much-needed hope and relief.

     What exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?  SAD is a type of depression that is primarily related to the change in seasons, generally beginning in late fall to early winter. Some individuals may begin noticing symptoms during late summer as they anticipate the shorter days and weather changes. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either situation, symptoms may start out on the milder end and increase in severity as the season progresses. For those of us living in colder climates, the darkness, coupled with the unpleasant weather, may also increase severity of symptoms.  People with Bipolar Disorder are considered to have an increased risk of SAD, as episodes of mania may be linked to a certain season. As an example, spring and summer may bring on symptoms of mania whereas fall and winter may trigger depressive episodes. The following are some typical symptoms of SAD:

●    Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day

●    Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

●    Having low energy and feeling sluggish

●    Having problems with sleeping too much

●    Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain

●    Having difficulty concentrating

●    Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty

●    Having thoughts of not wanting to live

(Source:  Mayo Clinic)


Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

●    Oversleeping

●    Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates

●    Weight gain

●    Tiredness or low energy

(Source:  The Mayo Clinic)


If these symptoms are something you find yourself experiencing, please know that treatment is available. It's normal and expected to experience some down days, especially with the stress and excitement of the holiday season. However, if you feel down for days at a time or feel as though you can't get motivated to do things you normally enjoy, see your healthcare provider. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to substance use for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide. Some of the most common treatment methods include psychotherapy, medication management and phototherapy. In phototherapy, you sit within a few feet of a device that exposes you to bright light within the first hour of waking each day. These lights are available through online retailers such as Amazon and most are cost effective.  Consider speaking to your healthcare provider regarding this option and what light options may be best for you. It may be beneficial to discuss vitamin D supplementation with your healthcare provider, as well.

     As we start a new year and enter the coldest months, it’s helpful to think of each passing day as one step closer to warmer, lighter days. I know I will be, as I sit in front of my special light each morning. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year!





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