SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder

These seasonal changes, especially the "winter blues," or "February blahs, "at the onset of winter, may be problematic for many others. Seasons can cause changes not only in mood, but also in the energy level, sleeping, eating, social and sexual behavior. 

For some individuals, the declining light in the fall can usher in a form of a mood disorder that goes beyond simple winter blahs. This form of depression, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects approximately 6 percent of the United States' population, with 14 percent experiencing SAD. The incidence of SAD is greater in Northern latitudes where the decrease in light is greater.
This is not a new knowledge. For ages, spring has been associated with joy, passion, and reawakening. Shakespeare said, "Sweet lovers love the spring." We know that for many of us spring outbursts in a "spring fever" or frenzy of "spring cleaning." 

Valentine Day is as much an attempt to beat the winter blues as it is to celebrate the "passion of spring." On the other hand, winter with its darkness, cold, denuded trees, unfriendly winds, and lonely confinement, can cause depressed mood and other symptoms of depression. 

We avoid the "cold" people and seek the "warmhearted." Incredibly, the mental health field has only recently recognized the relationship between seasons and mood disorder, "Seasonal Affect Disorder," appropriately abbreviated, "SAD." 

The key indicator for SAD is seasonality, with symptoms beginning sometime in the fall, as daylight decreases, and subsiding with the return of light in the springtime. However, some individuals experience depressive symptoms whenever there is a stretch of days which are cloudy or overcast. The following symptoms, when they have a seasonal pattern are often typical of SAD:

  • Increased sadness, hopelessness, crying or irritability
  • Change in appetite (especially a craving for sweets or carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain
  • Reduction in energy level and sex drive
  • Change in sleep/wake patterns (especially a tendency to oversleep)
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Decreased concentration and creativity
  • Difficulty completing tasks

As with any depressive disorder, the treatment of SAD should be undertaken under the guidance of a qualified health professional. Exposure to bright light for around 30 minutes each morning, using a high intensity "light box," can be very helpful for some individuals. These light boxes must deliver 10,000 lux of illumination. They can be purchased or constructed at home with a minimal investment in materials. Others are helped through antidepressant medication and/or psychotherapy. Simply increasing exposure to daylight, exercising, eating healthy foods, decreasing stress and being with supportive, "comfortable" individuals can be highly therapeutic.

As with other forms of depression, suicide can be a real risk. If you, or someone you care about, is struggling with thoughts of wanting to die, please see your physician or a mental health provider as soon as possible. In a crisis, don't hesitate to go to the emergency room of your local hospital for assistance.

Fortunately, most individuals only experience the all-too-predictable symptoms of cabin fever. It can help to get out and try to enjoy winter activities, knowing that one's perspective - and energy - is likely to pick up with the return of light and of warm spring weather. From the book, "Winter Blues" by Norman Rosenthal, M.D.D: "despite all our modern discoveries, it is still valuable to look at ancient wisdom. As far as SAD is concerned, no ancient writer offered more cogent advice than the physician A. Cornelius Celsius provided to melancholic during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius:

  • Live in rooms full of light.
  • Avoid heavy food.
  • Be moderate in the drinking of wine.
  • Take massage, baths, exercise, and gymnastics.
  • Fight insomnia with gentle rocking or the sound of running water.
  • Change surroundings and take long journeys.
  • Strictly avoid frightening ideas.
  • Indulge in cheerful conversation and amusements.
  • Listen to music.

Sad Lighting