As days become shorter, SAD sets in.
SAD. The acronym is so cute, it almost seems like seasonal affective disorder couldn’t be much of a condition to reckon with. But SAD is a clinically recognized type of depression, and more than a simple case of “winter blahs.”
SAD symptoms typically arise when the days get shorter and colder.
With the onset of autumn and then winter, 10 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population is likely to suffer from SAD symptoms, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Three of every four people with SAD tend to be women. It is believed that reduced exposure to light during the darker months disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm—that is, our internal body clock—leading to disturbances in sleep patterns, eating habits and mood.
SAD has also been indicated in people who work day after day in windowless offices.
Variations in sunlight cause imbalances in the body.
Anie Kalayjian, professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York, helps connect the dots between light, biochemistry and SAD symptoms. “The hormone melatonin is sensitive to light exposure, and the symptoms associated with melatonin deficiency include fatigue, desire to sleep, lethargy and irritability,” she says. “Serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter, is connected with mood, as evidenced in the use of antidepressant drugs. We know that people [with SAD] feel better with more exposure to light, which increases their melatonin and serotonin levels.”
Kalayjian points out that serotonin deficiency can also lead to cravings for sugar and for carbohydrates, contributing to the SAD symptom of overeating.
Phototherapy is the treatment of choice for SAD.
Although the source of sunlight in phototherapy, or light therapy, is only simulated, the system’s response is real: The body is signaled to produce its energizing hormones. A formal treatment involves being bathed in artificial light controlled by a therapist, usually beginning with about 30 minutes of exposure in the morning hours. Patients are generally encouraged to get outside on sunny days rather than disappearing behind drawn window shades or behind their computers. Phototherapy has also been used to treat manic depression and psoriasis, along with several other skin disorders.
The FDA has approved the first SAD drug. You may not need it.
In June 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved Wellbutrin XL for treatment of SAD. The drug had previously been approved for major depression.
Kalayjian recommends several proactive tactics to combat SAD before resorting to pharmaceuticals. All of these work well in combination with psychotherapy or “talk therapy.”
- Exercise, which reduces stress and bolsters the immune system
- Plan winter vacations to sunny climates
- Engage in activities that bring you pleasure, such as reading novels, visiting friends and looking at happy family pictures
- Meditate, focusing on your breathing for 15 minutes a day
- Keep a journal to sort out bad feelings
SAD is a sympathetic human response to our environment.
“Both physiologically and emotionally, the body goes through a mini crisis at every season change,” explains Kalayjian. Spring fever, in fact, is just as real a phenomenon: The medical community identifies dangerous seasonal upswings in mood as spring-summer hypomania. More commonly, as the weather warms, people experience increased energy, decreased need for sleep and decreased appetite when the weather breaks—a curious set of symptoms sometimes recognized as “a good mood.”
Says Kalayjian, “After a long winter of cold and snow, all of a sudden flowers are blossoming, birds are chirping, the days are getting longer and brighter. … You can see a boost of energy in our environment when buds are pushing through the snow. And we are like that, too.”
“Reality Check: Seasonal Affective Disorder” has been reviewed for accuracy by Anie Kalayjian, professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York and president/founder of the Association for Disaster Outreach and Prevention.
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Contact Dr. Anie Kalayjian
Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress
Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Fordham University
President, Association for Disaster & Mass Trauma Studies
Board of Directors, United Nations, NGO Human Rights Committee
Treasurer, American Psychological Association International Division
President, Armenian American Society for Studies on Stress & Genocide
139 Cedar Street
Cliffside Park, NJ 07010-1003
Phone: 201 - 941-2266
Page: 917 - 269 - 2803
Fax: 201 - 941- 5110
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