Changing With the Leaves: What is SAD?

For most the population, summer is the happiest time of the year. Sunshine, feeling of less responsibility, and the warm weather tend to brighten the spirit. Of course, it is disappointing to see the dwindling days of summer disappear. For many this means it is time to go back to school or work, thus causing more stress. However, the transition from warmer months to colder ones can have a more substantial effect on some than others. There is a psychological affliction associated with these melancholic feelings known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which conveniently has the acronym of SAD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines it as “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” While they note that this wave of sadness can occur in the summer months, it is more common during autumn and winter due to the lack of sunlight. The warm rays of the sun do not only give us a nice tan, it also causes the release of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is essentially the neurotransmitter of happiness in the brain. To contrast that, when we are in a darker environment the brain releases melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that allows us to fall asleep. So, it makes sense to feel a greater amount of drowsiness as well as gloom as it gets darker earlier in the colder months.

In order to be diagnosed with SAD there must be a pattern. Typically, one will be diagnosed through meeting the depression benchmarks in a recurring, cyclical pattern with the seasons. According to the American Family Physician (AAFP) some symptoms include: low energy, change in appetite (weight gain), heavy feeling in the legs or arms, oversleeping, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of social situations. If one’s SAD comes about in the summertime, symptoms may be opposite, instead it includes weight loss and insomnia. A common treatment for more serious cases of winter/fall SAD is light therapy. Light therapy entails the use of a headpiece or a light box to assist in releasing an abundance of serotonin in the brain through the rays your retina absorbs. Some doctors may also prescribe medicine to lessen the effects. Therapy is also a useful outlet during these times, working with a therapist to overcome these challenges can lessen the stress of dealing with it on your own. They can also aid in providing strategies to conquer these feelings day by day.

So, who is most likely to be diagnosed with SAD? Well, unfortunately the female gender is diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder four times more often than men. Other attributes that increase the likelihood of having this hardship are: living farther from the equator, family history, previously diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, and being younger in age (NIMH). Reasons for this to occur also could be the natural lack of serotonin production or overproduction, as well as the lack of vitamin D production overall.

As the transition into the more shivery seasons begin, make sure to take some time for yourself and to look out for these symptoms. While stressing the importance to not self-diagnose, if you experience these feelings of depression reach out to friends, family, or a professional. Know that you are not alone, and while this state of mind may not be consistent throughout the year, your feelings are real and validated. 


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