Hello, Ohio. Fall is here and winter is almost upon us. Many people love this time of year: those who ski and ice skate, those who enjoy the cold, those who don’t necessarily become sad and depressed as the days grow shorter, the nights longer, and the sun takes a vacation to Florida — in other words, those who do not suffer with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. People experiencing seasonal affective disorder report symptoms, such as:
- “I am depressed most of the day, nearly every day.”
- “I just can’t get into the activities I usually enjoy.”
- “My energy level sucks.”
- “I am having trouble sleeping — I wake up at 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep” or “I feel like sleeping all the time.”
- “I just feel like a slug.”
- “I am really grouchy and irritable.”
- “I just can’t read or concentrate at all.”
- “I hate myself when I am like this.”
- “I feel so worthless.”
- “I think people would be better off without me.”
- “I keep wanting to kill myself.”
- “I gain 15 pounds in the winter.”
While it is perfectly normal to experience some of these feelings, especially if you live in the part of the country where there is a lot of rain or snow and not much sunlight, it is always a good idea to consult your doctor if the symptoms increase or you feel worse. This is especially important if you are having suicidal thoughts. There are medications that your doctor can prescribe that may help. Also, avoid the use of alcohol and other drugs because these can make seasonal affective disorder worse.
The specific cause of the disorder is not really known. Some factors that seem to come into play include our biological clocks and the reduced level of sunlight. Serotonin levels can drop and this brain chemical is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in our serotonin levels, triggering depression. The change in season can also disrupt our bodies level of melatonin, which plays a role in our sleep patterns and our mood.
SAD is more common in women than men. It occurs more frequently in younger adults than in older adults. Factors that increase risk include family history, having major depression or bipolar disorder, or living far from the equator. SAD is more common among those of us who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to the decreased sunlight. Recognize a theme? Sunlight is a pretty big deal. Some people benefit from using a specialized light during the fall and winter to help ward off the disorder.
The most important thing is to get help for SAD so that it does not get worse and lead to other or additional problems, such as social withdrawal; school or work problems; substance abuse; other mental health disorders, such as anxiety or eating disorders; and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Treatment can prevent complications, especially if SAD is diagnosed and treated before the symptoms get bad.