Society sees the changing of seasons not only in climate but in the different behaviors of large groups of people in general. Summer months are filled with lawn parties, BBQs , and young people “cruising” town and having fun. There seems to be a higher complaint rate of noise pollution in these warmer days and local, state, and nationwide festivals are held for days on end. Summer truly has a way of bringing out the joy of life. On the other end of the spectrum, when the winter months arrive, the world seems to crawl to a slower pace. As the population adjusts to the shorter days and colder weather, people start sticking close to home. For someone experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, this change not only happens around them, it happens inside them as well.
The diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) defines Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, as “a subtype of major depressive episode.” Like regular depression, it’s characterized by a general sadness and lack of energy, as well as weight loss or weight gain, the inability to sleep, and the urge to withdraw from society in general. The difference is that it comes and goes with the seasons. Clinical studies have shown a link between the amount of light a person is exposed to and the amount of hormones that regulate depressive emotions. Though this link has been questioned and still garners a few skeptics in both the scientific and psychological world, it has been strong enough to warrant developing therapies that involve the use of a light box and/or anti-depressants to counteract the effects of SAD.
On a personal level, SAD is extremely hard to deal with. Ask anyone who deals with depression on a regular basis and there’s a good chance they can tell how debilitating it is. Because SAD is a type of depression, there’s no comparison on which is worse. They’re both hard on those who suffer with them. However, SAD is experienced in slightly different ways. Depressives with this type can go for months without feeling “down.” They’ll sleep well, life will seem good, and their health and wellness will reach high points. Social events will seem more inviting and everyday stress will be well handled. But with the onset of cooler weather and a higher frequency of overcast skies, all that can change, sometimes almost before the sufferer realizes it. Someone living with Seasonal Affective Disorder may find that they no longer take joy in seeing their friends or pride in doing a job well done. It might get harder to fall asleep at night and almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning. Often, sufferers will spend days off from work or school doing nothing more than lying in bed, hiding from the world. Mood swings can become more frequent as well as overindulgence in habits such as smoking, drinking, or compulsive eating. Work becomes a chore and even a person who is normally outgoing and friendly can become quiet and sullen.
Critics say that SAD is nothing more than an overblown term for the winter blues that everyone seems to get. Unfortunately, someone dealing with true Seasonal Affective Disorder might agree. Why is that a bad thing? A person who constantly believes that they SHOULD be okay will tend to believe that they’re at fault for their low moods. After all, weren’t they fine just a few weeks ago? Not knowing that there could be a valid reason for the way they feel can serve to push them further into depression, leading to physical pain as well as thoughts of suicide.
Like any form of depression, there are ways to counter the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Regular exercise is highly recommended, preferably outside if the conditions aren’t too cold or hazardous for walking or jogging. Even on a cloudy day, the little bit of light absorbed from being outside can increase the good hormones that lift the depressive state. Bright lamps around the house can also help as well as keeping plants in the home to increase the oxygen in the living space. This explains why bright lights and calming ambiance are maintained in a medical clinic floor space.
Calming activities, such as knitting or writing, can be a good way to relieve the stress that seems harder to handle in the face of SAD depression. Though being in a crowd might not sound inviting, forcing one’s self to go out and be with friends can offer relief from the general malaise of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
When the small things that can be incorporated into everyday life just don’t seem to work, options such as counseling and anti-depressants are the next things to try. A counselor can be a good person to talk your feelings out to as well as gain new perspective on certain life events that are currently bothering you. These stresses may seem too difficult to deal with, and a counselor can help you find ways to view them as doable rather than overwhelming. Certain prescriptions have also been found to help deal with SAD. Zoloft can help the world seem a little brighter even during those short days of fall and winter, and for those who experience depression in the manner of severe mood swings, Lithium tends to be a good equalizer. A patient with SAD should discuss the options with a family doctor or counselor to see what would work best. (Note: Anyone going this route should be aware that different anti-depressants don’t always work the same on everyone. If the side effects are worse than the symptoms you’re treating, talk to your doctor about a change in prescription).
Whether you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or even just general depression, remember that there’s always help. Explore your options and don’t fall into the trap of believing you’re at fault. Gather support from your friends and family and venture into different avenues of treatment. After all, just because the sun isn’t shining shouldn’t mean that you have to suffer.