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Your “Winter Blues” Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder: Here Are Some Tips to Diagnose and Treat SAD

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Here in the Pacific Northwest, the home of AgingOptions, autumn is known for many things: the bursts of fall colors, the first of the blustery wind storms, and the arrival of dark, short, cloudy days. For many, especially when the hours of daylight are short and long periods can go by without a glimpse of the sun, the late autumn months of November and December can bring on a case of the “winter blues,” a condition which can be a mild annoyance for some but a debilitating depression for others. The condition has been appropriately named SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

In this 2021 US News article, reporter Paul Wynn takes a look at the diagnosis and treatment of SAD. We wanted to bring it back to your attention because many of our readers are probably affected by SAD or they know someone who is. If you or a loved one seem to be having particular difficulty coping with the short, dark days that loom just a few weeks away, this article can help – because there are treatments you should know about that have been proven successful.

Winter Blues Can Feel Overwhelming

For some folks, the darker seasons of the year can merely be frustrating and mildly gloomy. But for others, the cold weather and lack of daylight can lead to something much more severe, even debilitating. The medical community calls this seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is considered a form of depression and tied to the changing of the seasons.

“Symptoms normally begin when the weather turns colder and daylight decreases in the late fall or early winter and begins to lift when daylight increases and the weather turns warmer in the spring,” Wynn writes. “Though it’s very uncommon, some individuals experience the symptoms of SAD during the summer months.”

Feeling a little down in the wintertime is normal, of course. But the point at which that gloom interferes with your daily life is the boundary where SAD might be present.

American Psychiatric Association Says Women Are More Affected

As the article explains, because it’s based on levels of light and changing weather, SAD can last in sufferers for about 40 percent of the year and tends to be at its most severe in January and February, before the relief of spring arrives. It’s also more common than you might think, affecting about 5 percent of adults in the United States alone, and some children as well.

Women tend to be more prone to SAD than men, but there are a few other risk factors. Genetics may play a role in SAD, possibly running in families, and geography certainly makes a difference. If you live somewhere far north or far south of the equator, you’re much more likely to experience reduced sunlight for part of the year and may develop SAD as a result.

As Dr. Krystal Lewis, a clinical psychologist in Maryland, told US News, “Seasonal affective disorder has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain, and people experience a shift in their internal clock, or circadian rhythm, that then causes them to be off-schedule with their daily life.”

Watch Out for Changing SAD Symptoms

Diagnosing SAD does require psychological evaluation, including two widely-used questionnaires: the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire (SPAQ) and the Seasonal Health Questionnaire (SHQ). The latter is considered the more thorough and specific, but both are widely used to diagnose patients with SAD.  Still, despite the need of a medical professional to give you a diagnosis, you can—in fact, you should—keep an eye on your symptoms (or those of a vulnerable loved one) at home as the weather changes, just to make sure you catch the signs of SAD early.

In the article, Dr. James Murrough, a New York psychiatry professor and neuroscientist, explains, “Episodes of depression – seasonal or not – are diagnosed by the presence of significant sad mood or loss of interest or pleasure most of the day for at least two weeks, plus at least four other symptoms that persist during the same time frame and include significant disruptions in sleep, energy and appetite.”

Wynn includes a full list of SAD signs and symptoms in his article, but some of the most common to look out for include unusual changes in appetite or weight, feeling lethargic or agitated for a length of time, a sense of hopelessness or worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, changes in sleep pattern, and loss of interest in things you enjoy. On the more severe end, any thoughts of suicide or death must be treated very seriously.

Treating SAD Begins with Recognition

Thankfully, reporter Wynn writes, once SAD is diagnosed it can be helped with a wide array of attainable treatments. The most common of these are as simple as exercise and better sleep, while some patients benefit from more direct medical interventions such as antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy. Bright “full spectrum” light therapy is also a common and highly effective SAD treatment.

Wynn advises that the best way to treat SAD is to recognize your symptoms early, since “beginning your treatment plan proactively in early fall can be very effective in preventing the symptoms from occurring in patients that have a clear history of seasonal onset depression.”

In his article, Wynn breaks down the treatments in great detail. But here’s our summary:

  • Antidepressants: Because SAD is a form of depression, it is associated with changes in neurotransmitters in your brain. Antidepressants can help to regulate your serotonin and other neurological imbalances, but they do take a few weeks to see full benefits. Early identification of SAD is key if you want to use medications to combat it.
  • Bright Light Therapy: One of the most effective treatments for SAD and often the first line of treatment, phototherapy involves sitting in front of a special lamp when you first wake up in the morning. The lamp provides you with 20 times more light than normal indoor lighting, and mimics the effect that sunlight has on your body. This helps boost and regulate your serotonin levels without medication.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: More commonly known as talk therapy, CBT boosts mental health through changing negative thoughts and behaviors and giving people coping strategies to deal with challenges. It can help to break the cycle of low mood and energy by giving patients an opportunity to engage in things they enjoy.
  • Exercise: Regular physical exercise has been shown to help boost your body’s energy and mood throughout the day, and it’s even more effective against SAD when you exercise outside. Even though there isn’t much sunshine in the winter there is at least a bit, and getting outside also encourages social interaction, another help against low mood.
  • Healthy Sleep Hygiene: Sleep is one of the unsung keys to beating SAD. Healthy sleep should be a priority for those who deal with seasonal depression, especially keeping an eye on waking and falling asleep at the same times every day as much as you can. Under and over sleeping are both equally difficult on the brain and body, so making sure you give your body the right amount of sleep will help tremendously with your overall mental and physical health.

As the weather changes and the seasons shift, keep an eye on your mood. If you think you may have signs of SAD, talk to your doctor about it, and about the available options. Treatments are available and accessible. It may not be sunny outside, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend your days in gloom!

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(originally reported at https://health.usnews.com)

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