What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Are You Feeling SAD?
By BRIAN SHAW, LICSW, LIMHP, LISW, CST
During the winter months we often hear people mention feeling “blue” or “down.” There are others that speak of SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. You may wonder, “What on earth is SAD?” Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a seasonal, cyclic disorder that affects many individuals every year. The onset of symptoms usually begins in the fall or early winter and ceases as the seasons change and it becomes sunnier outside. For some, the seasonal depression begins in the spring or summer months.
Although SAD is not a “standalone” diagnosis in the current Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), published by the American Psychiatric Association, it has received much attention by the medical community over the past several years.
The most common symptoms of winter-onset SAD are:
• Loss of energy
• Weight gain and an increase in craving carbohydrates
• Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasurable activities)
• Depressed mood
• Difficulty concentrating
• Social withdrawal
• Decreased sex drive
The most common symptoms of spring/summer-onset SAD are:
• Poor appetite
• Increased sex drive
• Insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
• Weight loss
Some believe SAD can be caused by a dysregulation in the biological clock (circadian rhythm); melatonin levels (a hormone that assists in the regulation of mood and sleeppatterns); duration of sunlight; and serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects mood).
Treatment options include:
• Phototherapy (light therapy). Light therapy is an easy way to decrease the symptoms of SAD. Most people can purchase a light therapy box and put it in their homes or office. The light from the light therapy box mimics outdoor, full-spectrum lighting. Some insurance companies will pay for a light therapy box if you have a prescription from your physician.
• Medication. You can speak with your physician, psychiatrist or nurse practitioner about psychotropic medications that may help decrease the symptoms of SAD.
• Psychotherapy. A mental health therapist can assist you in changing your negative thought processes and behaviors that contribute to your overall mood. Therapists understand how difficult it is to manage the stress of life, especially when you are feeling depressed. Therapists treat each person in a holistic manner and guide you along the way to wholeness.
Many researchers have found that a combination of psychotherapy, medication management and light therapy are beneficial to the treatment of SAD. Please speak to your physician or mental health professional if you believe you are experiencing SAD or any other mental health condition.
Other ways to combat SAD include:
• Exercise. Getting any amount of exercise is better than no exercise at all! If you work in a high-rise building then take the steps and if you have steps in your home then use them for 10-15 minutes each day. Join a gym; the cost of memberships this time of year tends to be pretty fair.
• Get adequate sleep. Sleep is vital to regulating your mood and behaviors. Try to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
• Relaxation. We are bombarded in our world with cell phone calls, text messages, Facebook posts, Twitter, and emails. We go to work each day and are overwhelmed, then come home and the kids need our attention. This week spend 10 minutes alone in your car or a quiet space in your home. Turn off the radio, television and cell phone so you can BE.Become a watcher of your thoughts but do not analyze or react to them at all. Watch the thoughts drift by like clouds in the sky. If you begin to think about the grocery list, then focus on your breath. Some people benefit from counting breaths to keep the mind focused on the number being mentally said instead of their thoughts. If this works for you it is helpful to count to 10 and then return to 1. If you are able to get to 10 with no interruption of thoughts then that is great! Most people begin and only get to 5 or so until they run away with a thought. If this happens, return to 1 and begin again. Spend the 10 minutes in being instead of doing. Start off with five minutes if 10 is too much. Your breath will return to normal and your body will get the chance to rest, even for a brief period. Do this once per day and then increase the time if you are able. This simple exercise is best done sitting in a comfortable chair or on the floor in a comfortable position; it is not recommended to do this in bed because your body is already trained to sleep in that space.
• Eat well. You do not need to be a dietitian in order to eat well. Listen to your body and eat what it innately craves. Replace unhealthy “fast foods” with alternatives such as sandwiches and salads.
• Get more sunlight. If it happens to be a nice day, then go outside when it is sunny. It may also help to get more sunlight into your home by opening your blinds up or sitting closer to a window with light coming in.
• Find balance. You can be the best you can be when your body, mind and spirit are aligned. Do not be too hard on yourself. Many people make New Year’s resolutions and often fail. It takes almost one month to change any bad habit, but be gentle with yourself and love yourself. Nobody is perfect and you cannot change every “bad” characteristic all at once. Instead of swearing off alcohol, fatty foods, men, women, cigarettes, or whatever your vice may be, look at your life and ask yourself, “Where in my life am I out of balance?” If you believe you work too hard, then you need to rest a little more. If you exercise too much, then you need to relax more.The adage “what we resist persists” is true. If we focus on the negative, that is what we will receive. For example, the “battle to lose weight” idea focuses on weight loss being a war of some sorts; however, if we shift our perspective to “eating healthy for me” then there is no negative related to thoughts around our food intake. If we believe eating is always going to be a battle, then chances are it will be a battle that we cannot win. So, our thinking patterns do affect our outcomes.
It might be helpful to enjoy a sunrise, spend time in your spiritual place (church, temple, mosque, spiritual home), laugh more, and enjoy the life you were meant to live. Everything is always changing and balance is a healthy way to endure the changes we face. We were not created to be overstimulated and out of balance. Focus on your strengths and positive ways to introduce balance back into your life. Remember that you are whole, complete and perfect — half the battle is in believing it.
Shaw, B. (2013). Are You Feeling SAD?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2013/are-you-feeling-sad/