Don’t be S.A.D.

Those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can feel a lot of the same symptoms found in depression, such as feelings of isolation, overeating or oversleeping.

Well, it is that time of the year again. The days are shorter, the weather is often nasty, and, for some people, this is the recipe for a trying and lonely few months.

Call it the winter blues, the holiday blues or seasonal depression. Call it what you like, but if you suffer from this mood disorder, then you are familiar with the debilitating effects it can have.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a specifier of major depression. People who have normal mental health throughout the year experience depressive symptoms during the winter or summer seasons. In the winter months, those suffering from SAD tend to oversleep, overindulge and have low levels of energy. In the summer, the symptoms are reversed and one might feel anxious or nervous.

The French psychiatrist Jean Esquirol first noted this mood disorder in the early 1800s, and in 1984 it was described by Norman Rosenthal of the National Institute of Mental Health. By 1987 the DSM gave us the current classification of seasonal pattern as a qualifier for mood disorders. Despite early uncertainty, experts now recognize this as a common disorder.

According to UNA Professor of Psychology Dr. Larry Bates, there are a few theories for the causes of SAD.

“The prevalence increases as one approaches the poles and is much less prevalent toward the equator,” he said. “Hence, the lower levels of light are often blamed for this disorder. There are exceptions to this rule, as researchers have found that SAD is not more likely in northern Norway than in other parts of the world.”

“Sleep patterns differ between those with SAD and major depressive disorder,” Bates said. “Those suffering from SAD have phase-delayed patterns, meaning they go to bed later and get up later. This corresponds with delays in the normal body temperature fluctuations during a 24-hour period.”

Some theories point out the natural habit of hibernation in many species during the low-light months. Perhaps this is a remnant of human behavior from a distant ancestor.

Treatment for this disorder is similar to other depressions. The standard anti-depressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapies are used, but, in addition, light therapy is specifically used to treat seasonal depression. The light is very bright-usually 750 watts concentrated on you-and can be effective within one week.

“If I had this disorder, I’d probably opt for getting as much sunlight during the day as possible, just in case it turns out that low light levels are the cause,” Bates said.

Just as the exact cause of this disorder is still openly discussed by professionals, so too is the exact number of people who suffer from it.

“It is problematic to get good estimates from professionals giving diagnoses and those in research labs because some do not differentiate between those with a seasonal pattern and those without,” he said.