Long & Starry Nights: A SAD State of Affairs

SAD Seasonal Affect Disorder

“Man, the days are getting shorter and shorter – and I know what’s coming. I don’t do well sans sunlight. What else can I say? It makes me SAD.”

I doubt it’ll make you feel any better, but in some parts of the world, 10% of the population are down-in-the-dumps with you.

We’re talking seasonal affective disorder here. And with Daylight Savings Time in the Good ‘Ole US of A ending November 5, I’m thinking we need to chat about it. Yikes!

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurrent depression that commences at the same time every year. Most common is an autumn onset, with discomfort continuing – and often escalating – through the winter months. Interestingly enough, a spring/summer routine may also occur.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) doesn’t give SAD its own diagnostic code. Rather it’s a “specifier” (“with seasonal pattern”) for a recurrent major depressive disorder (MDD). The same applies to an MDD within the context of a bipolar disorder diagnosis.

What Does SAD Feel Like?

Well, if you’re a SAD veteran you likely know the sensations. New to scene or need some confirmation? Here are some symptoms…

  • Autumn/Winter Type: Depression, hopelessness,  anxiety, loss of physical energy, one-ton arms and legs, social withdrawal, oversleeping, no interest in what were pleasurable activities, carb-cravings, appetite changes…
  • Spring/Summer Type: Difficulty initiating and sustaining sleep, crabbiness, poor appetite, weight loss, restlessness, increased libido…

Of course, any of the above are enough to make one’s existence miserable. But things can really get out of hand if add-ons such as substance abuse or suicidal thoughts and/or behavior are thrown into the mix.

People, I encourage you to seek help at the drop of a hat in the face of any of the symptoms we just reviewed!

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Hmmm, would you be surprised if I told you no one knows what causes SAD? Ah, just another component of the mood and anxiety disorder dilemma.

So what do we have to go on? You guessed it. The vague and ever-famous genetics, age, overall physical health, body chemistry, environmental factors, and life stressors.

But there are some things you can actually hang your hat on…

Involvement of the sleep/awake cycle (one of our circadian rhythms), decreased levels of serotonin due to reduced sunlight, disruption in melatonin balance, being female (though the intensity of men’s symptoms tend to be worse), living farther away from the equator, having a family history of SAD, and being diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

How Is SAD Treated?

As with most any emotional/mental health disorder, treatments are all over the board. But let’s go with the following…

  • Light therapy:  Aka phototherapy, one is exposed to bright light by sitting a few feet from a specialized light therapy box. It’s, well, fake sunlight – and the masquerade works. But before you knee-jerk a purchase, run it by your medical and emotional/mental health providers, okay? And if you’re enduring bipolar disorder really be careful. Light therapy may induce mania or hypomania.
  • Meds: In stubborn cases of SAD, antidepressants may be indicated. Typically used are paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), venlafaxine (Effexor), and the extended-release version of bupropion (Wellbutrin XL). Again, a bipolar disorder caution – using an antidepressant without a mood-stabilizing med may trigger mania or hypomania.
  • Psychotherapy: In addition to addressing potential biochemical issues, covering your bases by identifying and turning around negative thoughts/beliefs is a great idea. Psychotherapy can also help you with your stress management mission.
  • Environmental Changes: Make your living environment more sunny and bright, will ya’? Open those blinds, trim back those tress and bushes. And while you’re hanging around the house or office, sit closer to windows. Don’t get outside often? Make it happen.
  • Exercise: Do it regularly (outdoors, if you can).
  • Herbal Remedies and Supplements: St. John’s Wort may help. And so might SAMe, a synthetic form of a naturally occurring body chemical. Melatonin may be a nice option for you. The same applies to omega-3 fatty acids. Please make sure you chat with your doc before giving herbal remedies and supplements a go.
  • Mind/Body Work: Acupuncture, yoga, meditation, guided imagery (your psychotherapist can get you going), and massage therapy.

Lights Out

Alrighty, then – some general info on a SAD state of affairs for millions this time of year. No doubt about it, seasonal affective disorder is one tough hombre; however, it’s very treatable.

Hey! Just wanted to shed some light (argh!) on it…

Here’s a link to an article I wrote last November on some fascinating SAD research. Check it out. You’ll enjoy it.

For scores of chipur articles from which you’ll derive benefit, just click the link: Feelin’ Better, The Biology of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders, The Psychology of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders