Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) sounds pretty self-explanatory – you are affected by some kind of mental health disorder during a particular season, either in summer, fall, winter or spring. Oh, if it were only that simple.
While this disorder usually appears in winter months, there are also seasonal disorders in the summer. Both disorders can and have been misdiagnosed due to a lack of understanding by the patient and the doctor. Learning as much as you can about your symptoms will help you get an accurate diagnosis.
Winter seasonal affective disorder seems to sneak up on you, but in reality it is a gradual change. Starting in the fall, as the amount of daylight hours get shorter and shorter, the serotonin levels are not as active due to the decrease in sunlight. This happens over a period of time. You feel fine for a while, not even remembering that you have seasonal affective disorder. Then boom, in the middle of January, you decide you don’t want to get out of bed.
Your energy is low, you feel like crying, you are more anxious and your overall outlook is dreary. After a few days or weeks of feeling like this you decide to return to your doctor for help. He or she reminds you that about this time last year you had the same symptoms.
Seasonal affective disorder usually appears during the same season each year. It’s considered a mood disorder and most of the time affects people in the winter months when there is less daylight. Early symptoms can be recognized as early as September or October and sometimes sooner. So your doctor puts you on a plan and after a short period of time you are feeling more like your happier self. You continue this plan until summer, when you begin feeling so good you don’t feel like you even need the doctor’s therapies. So you quit the plan.
Because you are feeling so good, you don’t realize it is the longer hours of sunlight making you feel great during the spring and summer months. Then September comes along and you jump right back into the cycle. Unless, of course, your disorder affects you the opposite way.
There is also summer seasonal affective disorder which has more to do with the heat and humidity. It can be related to getting too much light. It actually makes people more violent rather than sad. Another name for it is reverse seasonal affective disorder.
You know that Saturday in July when you happily decided to landscape your entire yard all by yourself? After about four hours of sweat, achy muscles, and dehydration you began to feel frustrated and lonely and you begin to doubt yourself for choosing the hottest day of the year to start this project. And then at hour eight you are full blown angry at yourself and all of the people in your life who did not offer to help you on this project. You are mad at the rich people who can hire landscapers. You are mad at people who live in apartments because they don’t have a yard. You are even mad at your neighbors for having manicured lawns. If they didn’t have good looking yards you wouldn’t have to make sure your yard looks good.
All of this bad mood could be due to the heat and getting too much sunlight leading to summer seasonal affective disorder. Or you could just be hangry (hungry + angry). Either way you need a solution to your problem.
One solution is to meet with a doctor or Psychiatrist to find out for sure. Don’t just assume you have this disorder because there are many symptoms that are similar to other disorders. Seasonal affective disorder symptoms can also resemble the symptoms of bipolar depression, major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in some cases.
To be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder you first have to have a diagnosis of depression. And you have to have this diagnosis for two years to make sure the depression is related to the seasons.
You can take a self-test to see if your symptoms match that of seasonal affective disorder. This online test is not a diagnosis but it can help you determine whether or not you need to meet with a trained professional.
There are many causes of seasonal affective disorder. Some examples include genetics and living in a location where there is little sunlight.
There are also many treatments to help you cope. Treatments include light therapy, medication, taking care of your body, prevention and chronotherapy.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Remember your coach telling you that before every game? If you can prevent them from scoring, you have a chance to win. Same goes for dealing with SAD. If you can prevent the symptoms from becoming overwhelming or “scoring”, you have a chance of less mood issues during the seasons that affect you most; therefore, winning.
Don’t wait until you’re depressed and in the middle of winter to start getting help. If you know you have seasonal affective disorder, start preparing for it months before winter begins.
Knowing your symptoms and what signs to look for is extremely important in preventing depressive disorders of any kind. Get your family and friends to help you recognize the signs and symptoms. Be willing to listen to them when they tell you about a sign they see. Don’t get defensive and mad when your best friend tells you sleeping three days in a row is not healthy. Instead, recognize it as a sign to be proactive and fight for good mental health.
Bupropion is a medicine that has been approved for the prevention of seasonal affective disorder. Starting this medicine several weeks or months before the season will aid you in your transition from good months to harder months.
Finally, maintain a good routine that includes a lot of structure with exercise, sleep, and a good diet. You can also begin light therapies that will trick your mind into thinking you have more or less daylight hours than you actually do.
For fewer than one hundred dollars you can get your very own light therapy box. This little box can do wonders for your mood.
Research shows that light therapy or phototherapy has been providing relief since the 1980s when it was first founded as a disorder. A study showed that people using phototherapy versus a placebo showed complete remission of their symptoms.
Harvard Health reports light therapy boxes can really help people who have seasonal affective disorder due to lack of light. However, light boxes are not regulated or approved by the FDA so it is important to do a ton of research on the light amount and frequency you would need.
There are also some safety issues with light boxes. Some prescription medicines can make you sensitive to extra light. Also, if you have bipolar disorder, light boxes can trigger a manic state. It is best to talk to your eye doctor or your pharmacist before purchasing a light box.
The benefits, however, have shown to far outweigh any negative effects for people with seasonal affective disorder.
While medicine is obviously not your first choice, it is still a good option for many people with SAD. And when you are working closely with your doctor, you can plan your treatments so that you are not on medicine all year long.
Medication may sometimes be a necessity and can further the benefits of light therapy and other treatments. Doctors often use Prozac or Paxil or newer anti-depressants to fight feelings of sadness and increase the desire to get up and face the day.
Over the counter medicines such as Vitamin D and St. John’s Wort have also been shown to be effective for many people in treating various depressive disorders.
Please, don’t run out to the store and start buying all the items on the shelf that claim they can help you with depression. Instead, get a diagnosis from a Psychiatrist who specializes in seasonal affective disorder and all areas of depression so he or she can determine which medicine is right for you, if any.
The key is getting help early, before symptoms start to appear. By working with your doctor and getting the right medicines in advance, your brain will not be trying to play catch up. Do this in conjunction with living a healthy lifestyle.
Taking Care of Your Body
Taking care of your body includes exercising, getting massages, eating right and implementing other selfish (in a good way) techniques. These are the times when you need to put yourself first and stay healthy during the seasons that can change your mood.
I know this is hard to do, especially in the winter months when it is freezing outside and in the summer when it feels like you live in a desert. But exercising, especially walking, can aid in the relief of seasonal affective disorder by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. These are the feel good chemicals. Believe me, they want to feel good. They just need a little help from you.
The less sugar you eat, the better. Yes, this totally sucks! Sugar tastes so good and seems to be an ingredient in just about everything. However, sugar can damage the body and research has shown a clear connection between sugar and mental health.
Eating a healthy diet will help control blood sugar levels and provide you with extra nutrients you need to fight the symptoms of SAD. Hey, you don’t have to necessarily break up with sugar, just take a few more time outs from one another. Small changes like limiting your sugar intake and eating natural foods versus processed foods, will offer a noticeable difference in your mood.
No, you are not about to get frozen and then thawed out at a later date so you can meet your great great great grandkids. That is cryonics. Well, sort of.
Chronotherapy involves figuring out your internal clock and then applying therapies at specific times of the day to enhance your body’s abilities to fight depression.
Wake therapy is one method included in chronotherapy. Wake therapy is usually the first step and requires the patient to stay awake for an extended period of time. Wake therapy is followed by an early sleep period. This allows your body to get adjusted to a new internal time schedule.
A light box and dawn simulator are also used in chronotherapy. A dawn simulator tricks your brain into thinking it is summer time during the winter months by gradually turning on light before you wake up each morning.
Check out these apps that can help you with chronotherapy, including dawn simulators and light therapy. These apps are helping people get the right amount of light, the right color of light, and getting both of these at the right time during the day.
If you suffer with seasonal affective disorder then you know how devastating it can be and how it interferes with varying aspects of your life. However, this is one disorder that can not only be treated, it can be prevented if you take proper steps and work closely with your doctor.
When the months are good you don’t necessarily remember the bad times. Meaning in the summer months you may not remember the sadness you felt last winter.
Find a way to remind yourself to start your treatment plan a couple of months before you enter the season that causes you ill health. It doesn’t matter what the reminder is. It can be a sticky note on a calendar; or having your doctor’s office call you in for a wellness check.
Be determined this year to get organized with your mental health needs. Put your mental health first so you can continue to function properly throughout the entire year, not just for a few months. If you are not functioning on all levels, you can’t be there for others who may need you.
Whether you implement light therapy, dawn simulation therapy, chronotherapy or all of the above, you are doing the right thing. You deserve to have a full year of uninterrupted happiness. Taking simple steps, with the help of a therapist, can help you reach that goal.