Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects 5% of Americans each year, and in the Northeast, that number is closer to 10%. Another 20% of Americans suffer from a milder form of seasonal depression. On Nantucket, the effects of SAD combined with the isolation and other challenges of island living can be profound.
Not everyone experiences SAD, though most people are sensitive to the disappearance of the sun during the darkest months of winter. People for whom this season means the return of deep depression often dread it so much that they start to feel anxious and depressed in anticipation of its return.
There are two reasons for SAD as explained by experts.
1. The changing seasons can disrupt the production of hormones that regulate mood, sleep, and wellbeing, such as serotonin or melatonin.
2. The body’s circadian rhythm—like a clock inside us that regulates how we function and when we sleep and wake—can be seriously thrown out of balance by the change in light.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you think you or someone you know suffers from seasonal affective disorder, check out the list of symptoms below to see if they fit.
· Weight gain. Comfort food comforts for a reason. The sweet or starchy foods we love to eat when we are sad or depressed breakdown as sugar in our systems, which lifts our energy levels. When we crash from that uplifted sugar high, we seek out more of the same.
· Fatigue. Those who experience SAD are tired no matter how much they sleep, and they sleep a lot. Their bodies and brains seek a hibernation-mode to “get through” the dark months as painlessly as possible.
· Social withdrawal. People who have seasonal affective disorder tend to self-isolate. Though a natural response to SAD, withdrawal tends to make symptoms even worse.
· Anxiety. Someone with SAD reacts intensely to small triggers. Their anxiety and feelings of unease or worry are close to the surface. Others may see this person as irritable or grouchy, when these are really symptoms of their SAD.
· Thoughts of self-harm. Seasonal affective disorder is serious and thoughts of suicide can rise up.
How to Ease the Symptoms of SAD
You do not have to suffer, year after year, with a seasonal depression that makes life harder than it needs to be. There are actions you can take and treatments you can access that will ease your seasonal affective disorder symptoms. We recommend the following:
1. Make an appointment with a mental health professional who can both diagnose and treat SAD. By equipping yourself with a diagnosis, you will know exactly what you are dealing with and be proactive in getting the support and treatment you need.
2. Anti-depressants can help. Medications for depression are typically highly effective for SAD, have few side-effects, and can alleviate symptoms. Researchers and psychiatrists recommend taking anti-depressants for those with recurring SAD, starting in the autumn and continuing through spring.
3. Try bright light therapy. A phototherapy box emits sun-like light and can be purchased on-line. The exposure to the light for about 30 minutes a day is highly regarded as an effective treatment for SAD as it helps your circadian rhythms stay on track.
4. Keep a regular schedule. Sleeping regular hours means your exposure to natural light will be roughly the same every day, which supports your body’s response to natural cycles.
5. Exercise stabilizes mood and improves wellbeing. The brain’s natural dopamine and serotonin production is stimulated by exercise, and, along with the release of endorphins, can both lift and regulate mood. The more you can exercise outdoors during daylight, the better, but any exercise—a treadmill, spin class, dancing—is good for those who suffer from SAD.
6. Make sure to see people. Interact socially with others to keep yourself from feeling lonely and isolated during this season of hunkering down. The pandemic makes this a challenge, but being with friends and family will help combat SAD.
Reach out to Fairwinds—Nantucket’s Counseling Center
Some people have “winter blues” and others experience very little change at all during the dark months. But for others, the impact of changing seasons on their wellbeing is profound. Fairwinds is here to answer any questions you have about SAD and connect you with a clinician for diagnosis and treatment. Also, remember that our free, same-day urgent behavioral health clinic is available every weekday from 5:00-6:00 p.m. on Zoom. Call or text 508-228-2689 in the morning to make an appointment that day or the next.