Shining a light on seasonal affective disorder

Now that the holiday season has come and gone, a lot of people have begun to feel the unwelcome effects of winter. Short days, early sunsets, frigid temperatures and gray skies can begin to affect our mood in ways we may rather not admit. When you add in continued concerns about COVID-19, it makes complete sense that many of us might not be feeling as optimistic about the new year as we would have hoped.

With all of this in mind, I recently spoke to licensed clinical social worker Katie Romang about the realities of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its effects. Romang has more than 10 years' experience in the field of social work and is the owner and co-founder of Luminary Counseling Services in Springfield, a counseling practice that specializes in women's health and treats a variety of symptoms, ranging from depressive disorders and anxiety disorders to general life and stress management. Romang shared some very useful information about recognizing and managing seasonal affective disorder this winter.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

This type of depression follows a pattern correlating with the changing seasons. It typically starts in the late fall or early winter and improves by spring and summer months. Those who experience SAD tend to notice symptoms such as having low energy, not enjoying activities or interests they once enjoyed, feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping, social withdrawing, experiencing changes in appetite and having feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.

SAD is related to a couple key hormones in our brain that impact our sleep-wake cycle. Due to lack of sunshine in the wintertime, melatonin increases and causes us to feel more sleepy and less active. This can lead to a decrease in serotonin levels. Unfortunately, lowered serotonin can negatively impact our sleep, mood, movement and nervousness levels.

Who is at risk?

Seasonal affective disorder is more common in people with existing depressive disorders or other mood disorders. SAD can run in families, especially those who have a history with other mental health disorders. SAD is much more common in women than men. It is a very prevalent disorder in the United States, affecting an estimated 10 million people.

Is there an increased risk for SAD, given the ongoing pandemic?

I do think based on the increase of depression and anxiety disorders we've seen during the pandemic, we can assume the same to be true with seasonal affective disorder. The pandemic has shifted the way we live, work, go to school and connect socially. People are feeling more isolated and stressed. Our normal routines are altered, sleep habits are negatively affected, social connections are waning and a collective grieving of normalcy is something that many people are experiencing. These factors, in addition to the colder, darker, winter months, present an increased risk for experiencing the symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder.

What should someone do if they think they have SAD?

If you are noticing symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder, first understand that you are not alone, and that there are many effective treatments. If your symptoms are severe, or causing dysfunction in your relationships, routine or lifestyle, please speak with your primary care physician or a mental health professional to get the appropriate care and treatment.

What treatment options are there for coping with seasonal affective disorder?

Trying to spend more time outside, increasing your movement, implementing a sleep schedule, and maintaining healthy eating patterns can all be helpful in coping with SAD.

Another effective treatment is light therapy, which can be done at home using a light box that mimics outdoor light. Light boxes are available over-the-counter.

Antidepressants, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are used to treat symptoms of SAD. These medications can have side effects, so it is very important to talk to your doctor about your condition and the possible risks. However, antidepressants can be very safe, helpful and effective in combating severe, recurring symptoms of SAD.

Additionally, finding a therapist who specializes in depressive disorders and cognitive behavioral therapy can be extremely beneficial. Therapists provide support and useful tools to help create lasting changes in your mindfulness and thought patterns. Therapy allows for a safe space to express how you are struggling, and in working with your therapist, you can begin to identify healthy coping strategies that can be implemented immediately.

Pamela Savage is a freelance writer with a background in social work and is a true believer in the benefits of therapy and adopting a healthy lifestyle for your mental well-being.

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