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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder and How it Differs From The Winter Blues

We have all felt sadness creep its way into our hearts and homes as the days grow shorter and the ponds begin to freeze over. The winter blues is something that has been felt by everyone at one time or another but for some, the changing of the seasons leads to more than just feelings of sadness. For some, seasonal changes can lead to depression, feelings of apathy, fatigue, weight gain, suicidal thoughts, and/or self-injurious behaviors, and more.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects roughly five percent of adults in the United States, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Individuals who suffer from SAD experience drastic changes in mood, energy, and behavior, that are triggered by the changing of the season. Symptoms of SAD are often brought on by the transition from the warm brightness of summer, into the dreary darkness of fall. Although it is rare, some individuals with SAD may experience symptoms of the disorder as winter begins to morph into summer, and the cause of this difference is unknown.

Scientists and psychologists have discovered that the changing of the seasons is what causes the onset of SAD symptoms. However, scholars have yet to determine the significance that the changing seasons have on a person's mental health or the underlying factors that cause an individual to develop Seasonal Affective disorder.

Some research suggests that SAD may be caused by the decreasing amount of sunlight throughout the months of fall and winter, affecting our biological clocks which regulate things like our moods, hormones, and sleep cycles.

In addition to our biological clocks being altered, it is also theorized that the dwindling amount of sunlight may affect the production of chemicals in our brains like serotonin, leading to SAD. Serotonin is known as the ‘happy’ chemical and contributes to positive emotions like joy and motivation. If a person has low serotonin levels they may develop a mood disorder and are at a higher risk of developing SAD in the winter months due to a lack of sunlight.

There are three forms of treatment that have been found to be beneficial for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The first form of treatment for SAD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also referred to as talk therapy. This form of treatment allows individuals who suffer from the condition to express their thoughts and emotions in a safe space while being guided through coping with and working through the condition. Another form of treatment for this disorder is anti-depressant medication, which helps to regulate chemicals in the brain like serotonin.

The third form of treatment that has been found to help those with SAD is light therapy. During this treatment, an artificial light source is used to mimic sunlight. Direct exposure to this light for 15 to 30 minutes per day has been found to increase the production of serotonin and reduce some of the symptoms that come along with Seasonal Affective Disorder. While light therapy and anti-depressant medications are beneficial, it has been found that these forms of treatment are most effective when paired with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Combining these three forms of treatment allows individuals to work through their condition with the help of a professional, regulate the chemicals in the brain, and stabilize mood.

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects the daily lives of those who suffer from it and is more than just experiencing sadness or the winter blues. Individuals who suffer from SAD can experience a long list of symptoms that can become debilitating. These symptoms include but are not limited to increased feelings of stress and anxiety, oversleeping or insomnia, irritability, exhaustion, suicidal thoughts, and/or self-injurious behaviors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts and/or self-injurious behavior it is important to know that you are never alone, even when it feels like you are. There are always resources and support available and there is always hope. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255.


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