As the days get shorter and the weather colder, many women find themselves feeling tired and down. When these feelings interfere with daily life, they may signify seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that affects people in autumn and winter.
Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of general depression, except they occur only in the fall and winter, then abate in the spring. The disorder affects about half a million Americans annually, with four times more women suffering the condition than men. SAD manifests itself in decreased energy, emotions of hopelessness, oversleeping, anxiety, a loss of interest in once-enjoyable social activities and changes in appetite, especially the craving of carbohydrates.
What causes seasonal affective disorder?
Though the exact cause of SAD is unknown, theories about its source point to Mother Nature. “We know that light is a powerful biological stimulus,” says Brenda Byrne, PhD, director of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Clinic at the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Longer seasonal stretches of darkness may interfere with the body’s circadian rhythms and decrease the hormone melatonin and the brain chemical serotonin, both of which can affect sleep and mood.
If symptoms of SAD seep into your everyday life, see your doctor or a mental health provider. Light therapy, antidepressants and psychotherapy can all be potent treatments. “The effectiveness of each option is probably about the same,” says Annamarie Ibay, MD, medical director at Virtua Family Medicine Center in Lumberton, NJ. “But some people may not have time to do light therapy or psychotherapy, and others may not like taking or have side effects to medication.”
Coping with seasonal affective disorder
Lifestyle changes can also help fight seasonal depression. Exercise more, increase the amount of light in your home, spend more time outside and practice relaxation and stress reduction techniques.
“If your mood is telling you to stay in, get out,” says Mike Considine, PsyD, a therapist at Mid-Atlantic Behavioral Health in Newark, DE. “By doing the opposite action you will get less of the negative emotion. New mothers especially may wake up with low energy and feel depressed. Try to get out of your head and be in the moment with your child. It can help to go for a walk, which is a multisensory experience.”
SAD has a benefit that other forms of depression do not: Those who grapple with it know when to expect its arrival. “If you anticipate getting depressed in the winter, plan for it,” says Considine. Make appointments, take a class, see friends — anything you think will help keep the winter blues at bay.
Freelance writer Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.