If you feel lethargic and depressed in the fall, and those feelings persist into winter, you may be experiencing more than the winter blues. You may be struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder ( SAD ). The good news is that it's treatable. You don't have to "tough it out" every year.
SAD is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression, usually during fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal or high mood throughout the rest of the year.
Symptoms of SAD can include:
Fatigue and lethargy
Carbohydrate craving and weight gain
Decreased sexual interest
Hopelessness, even suicidal thoughts
Lack of interest in normal activities
Although the causes of SAD are not completely understood, a variety of factors can contribute to its development. For example, an individual's genetics, serotonin levels, and/or melatonin levels may be contributing factors. A person's circadian rhythm or biological clock may also contribute to the development of SAD. Similar to treating high blood pressure or any other illness, it is important for individuals to recognize changes in their mental health and work toward healing.
SAD has been linked to biochemical shifts caused by lack of sunlight. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, has also been associated with SAD. This hormone, which has been linked to depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. For some people, the most difficult months of the year are January and February when sunlight is scarce. The onset of SAD usually occurs between the ages of 18 and 30. Women experience SAD more often than men.
It can be difficult to differentiate between non seasonal depression and SAD particularly because the holiday season can be difficult and stressful for many people, including those in the LGBTQ community. Regardless of the specific type of depression a person experiences, all depression related symptoms should be taken seriously. See a doctor. It's important to get the proper diagnosis. Sometimes SAD can be mistaken for hypoglycemia or other medical conditions.
Treatment can be simple and include things like eating healthier, getting enough sleep, spending time in sunshine, and avoiding alcohol. Clinical treatment usually includes psychotherapy, light therapy or medication.
If the wintertime blues are really diminishing the quality of your life, we want you to know it's possible to enjoy the winter months. There is literally "a light at the end of the tunnel."
Dr. Sue Ellen Foley, Psy.D., M.B.A ., works at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital.