My Journey Into Less Sunlight, More Sleep

 

The daylight is shrinking. As I drive home at night, it’s as if nature is slowly pushing down on the dimmer switch with each passing day.

Usually, this time of year is a drag for me.  Metabolism becomes more slothful, my brain a bit foggier.  Diet changes. I go from slurpy gazpacho in the summer to the thick stews that made up Buffalo’s winter cuisine. Activity level tanks. Time on the elliptical replaced by sprawling on the couch.

I guess some would call it Seasonal Affective Disorder. I hate that term. We seem to pathologize everything these days.  So what if I tend to be a bit sadder, a tad more slothful. Is that a “disorder?” I think not.

Something seems better this year, however. It’s pretty clear that the more I sleep, the better I feel.  Summer meant seven hours of sleep; now I’m clocking nine.  I go to bed earlier, but wake up feeling fresher, and mentally sharper without the gloom of depression. 

Blue Monday Isn’t the Only Day Depression Can Strike. Here’s How I Cope.


Though Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a very real and debilitating form of mental illness, its important to remember that depression is not simply consigned to specific times of the year.  By implication this means that, though depression can strike at the heart of summer, we also do not need to ‘resign’ ourselves to feeling bad during the winter months.  This blog gives some helpful coping strategies, no matter the date nor the weather.  Read them here.

Seasonal Affective Disorder: What You Need to Know

We set our clocks back an hour in early November, resulting in shorter days, and darker skies before most of us leave work each afternoon.

It is important to understand the effect that light has on us. If you find yourself falling into the doldrums at this time of year as the number of daylight hours dwindle, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes called seasonal depression, may be to blame. Most SAD sufferers experience symptoms during the winter months, causing researchers to conclude that inadequate sunlight may play a role. But you don’t have to spend the winter months feeling depressed and unmotivated. Here’s what you need to know about SAD and how to alleviate it.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Most researchers believe decreased access to sunlight plays a role in seasonal affective disorder. Light affects our circadian rhythms, and UV rays can also change how the body processes vital minerals and other nutrients. For example, inadequate sunlight exposure is linked to low Vitamin D, which, in turn, has been linked to depression and other physical and mental health woes. So, the effects of darkness on the body—not just darkness itself—might be partially to blame.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, bolstered the connection between SAD and inadequate sunlight. It found that weather and climate—including rain and pollution levels—don’t appear to alter mood. But access to sunlight is a major predictor of mental health. In the study, people who lived in regions with shorter, darker days were more likely to experience poor mental health.

While light almost certainly plays a role, not all cases of SAD occur during the short, dark days of winter. A small fraction of cases occur on a seasonal basis during the spring or summer, which suggests that no single factor can fully explain SAD. Other potential risk factors include:

  • Seasonal lifestyle changes. If you only work during a portion of the year, have less to do during a specific time period, or face annual stress, you may experience seasonal depression.
  • Seasonal associations with previous trauma and grief. Our minds form strong connections between the sights and sounds of seasonal shifts and memories of the past. You may find yourself growing depressed each year around the time you suffered a trauma or loss.
  • Cultural norms and traditions. The high of the holiday season followed by the low of the new year can spur depression in some people.
  • Certain health issues are more likely to manifest at specific times of the year. For example, if you have severe allergies, you may get depressed in the spring, while chronic bronchitis can make the winter months depressing.

Each of these factors alone is unlikely to trigger depression, but in conjunction with other risk factors—including a family history of any form of mental illness—they can lead to SAD.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cyclical depression that occurs around the same time each year or that relents when the season changes, is the hallmark of SAD. If symptoms are not cyclical, you might be diagnosed with another disorder, such as major depressive disorder or dysthymia.

People with SAD often experience depressive symptoms which are less severe than those associated with major depressive disorders. Though suicidal thoughts can and do occur—particularly if SAD is left untreated—these thoughts are less common. Some common symptoms include:

  1. Low energy, feelings of grogginess, or excessive sleep. People with summer SAD may experience insomnia.
  2. Changes in appetite. People with SAD are vulnerable to weight gain. SAD sometimes causes carbohydrate cravings, because carbs offer a temporary energy boost.
  3. Irritability and anger.
  4. Changes in your relationships with others: People with SAD often feel lonely and rejected.
  5. Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  6. Feelings of guilt.
  7. Dread or uncertainty about the future.
  8. Loss of motivation.
  9. Feelings of sadness.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

People with winter SAD often respond well to light therapy, which involves sitting under a UV lamp for a short period of time each day. If you have access to daylight and can spend time outdoors, you might also find your symptoms improving if you receive 20-40 minutes of daily direct sun each day.

Treatment for major depression can also prove effective at treating SAD. Those treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy to help you talk through your feelings, identify problematic thought patterns, and more effectively cope with your depression. If causes relationship problems, therapy may also help improve your relationships. Your therapist can also talk to you about lifestyle changes—diet, exercise, activities—that may complement your treatment and help to alleviate your depression.
  • Antidepressants: Depression alters chemicals in your brain. Sometimes lifestyle remedies are inadequate to get things back on track. Antidepressants can be effective and often need only to be taken for a short period.

Is It Possible to Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Research on the prevention of SAD is mixed. However, there is some evidence that light therapy can help prevent SAD in people with a previous history of the condition. If you’re worried that you might develop SAD this winter, talk to your doctor about preventative strategies. Also, maintain a healthy lifestyle—overeating during the holidays, excessive spending, and low motivation can all make SAD worse.

If you experience SAD, you don’t have to suffer through months of misery. SAD is one of the most treatable forms of depression, and with the right care, you can feel better in weeks, or even days.

This article originally appeared in Psychology Today magazine

Joel L. Young, M.D., is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine outside of Detroit and teaches Psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Trained at the University of Michigan, Dr. Young is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and holds added qualifications in geriatric and forensic psychiatry. In addition, he is a diplomate of the American Board of Adolescent Psychiatry.

Dr. Young and his clinic have been primary investigators in a number of clinical trials involving antidepressant, AD/HD, and bipolar medications. He has authored three books and more than 70 textbooks and articles. His most recent book, When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart: Coping with Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, and the Problems That Tear Families Apart, was published by Lyons Press in December 2013.

 

References

 

10 Summer Depression Busters

Ten percent of those diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder suffer symptoms at the brightest time of the year. The summer’s brutal heat, bright light, and long days can affect a person’s circadian rhythm and contribute to depression for the opposite reasons that winter conditions do. If you’re a Summer Hater, or just notice that your mood is affected negatively by the heat, here are some summer depression busters that may help you better tolerate these months — maybe even enjoy the

Is Seasonal Depression a Myth?

New research challenges traditional belief that a season, particularly fall or winter, can influence or cause depression.  Investigators performed a large-scale survey of U.S. adults and found no evidence that levels of depressive symptoms vary from season to season.  Read the News

Autumn Anxiety is Real, and Treatable

Depression blogger Therese Borchard writes, “It happens every year. As I watch the first golden leaves fall from the oak tree outside our house and listen to the sound of the cicadas ushering in autumn, my anxiety spikes. I used to think I was relapsing into depression, but having been through this year after year (and documenting it in my mood journal), I now know I’m just going through my annual bout of autumn anxiety: a nervous feeling in my gut that begins the last week of August and continues through the first weeks of September”. Read her Blog

 

7 Delicious Dinners That Help Fight Seasonal Depression

If you’re suffering with the winter blues or have full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAS), there’s some good news: Not only is spring on the way, but there are actually certain foolds that you can eat to help ease depression and increase your energy levels.  Read the Blog

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