SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

Accoring to Mental Health America, Seasonal Affective Disorder affects half a million people every year between the months of September and April.  Three out of four people who suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder are women and the main age of onset is between 18 and 30 years of age.

What causes this disorder?  If we consider how sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals (as in hibernation), then it is easy to understand how changes in seasonal sunlight causes variations in human emotions.  There is a shift in our biological internal clocks due partly to changes in sunlight patterns.  So, this can simply cause us to be out of step with our moods.  Additionally, the sleep-related hormone, melatonin, has been linked to cause symptoms of depression.  When the days are shorter and darker, the production of this hormone increases which may adversely affect the human emotional experience.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?  This diagnosis can be made after 3 consecutive seasons with the following symptoms (followed by complete remission of symptoms during the longer and warmer days of summer):

  • Depression: misery, guilt, low self-esteem, hopeless, despair, apathy
  • Anxiety: tension, inability to tolerate stress
  • Mood changes: extreme mood swings (even mania in spring and summer)
  • Sleep problems: desire to oversleep, difficulty staying awake, disturbed sleep
  • Lethargy: feeling fatigued, inability to complete a normal routine
  • Overeating: craving starchy and sweet foods
  • Social problems: irritability, avoidance of social contact
  • Sexual problems: loss of libido, decreased interest in physical contact

What about the effects of “spring fever” and how does this play into our mood cycle?  Most of us look forward to cheering up after we adjust to the end of daylight savings time.  But the reality of experiencing “spring fever” is complex in the way we feel, think, and act.  Our internal clocks and biologic systems rev up and we feel the results.  As the snow melts, we feel an increase in energy that can be more confusing than motivating.  Then we let our guard down and we may end up feeling pushed around in different directions, distracting us with contradictions and incoherence.  “Spring fever” begins as a rapid and yet unpredictable fluctuating mood and energy state that seems to contrast with the relative low of the winter months that have preceded it.  It’s important to remember that Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t just what most people consider to be the “winter blahs” but that it is more complex and isn’t limited to winter.  Unfortunately, the person who is depressed during the winter months may witness others enjoying spring and feeling generally better which can lead them to feeling worse.  According to Psychology Today,  this increase in emotional discomfort in the springtime can even lead to suicides which are at a peak in the month of April.

What is the treatment for this disorder?  First of all, we need to become aware of our “emotional calendar”, learn to understand/recognize our symptoms, and make a good plan for our own self-care.  What have been the patterns been in my life from year to year?  What can I learn from my past experiences?

  • Spend time outdoors, such as getting outdoor exercise
  • Arrange homes and workplaces to receive more sunlight
  • Engage in light therapy, which is bright light treatment or dawn simulation for up to 4 hours per day (has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases)
  • Counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy

 

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Behavioral Health & Wellness

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