Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Howard Gerber on December 29, 2011

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Seasonal affective disorder is aptly referred to as SAD, because the people suffering from the disorder often diagnose themselves as being simply sad at first. While there are variations of seasonal affective disorder that affect people during the spring and summer, most cases begin sometime in the fall and last throughout the winter with symptoms finally subsiding in the spring.

Symptoms

Symptoms of fall and winter seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in appetite, particularly cravings for carbohydrates
  • Decrease of energy
  • Depression
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Heavy feeling of the legs or arms
  • Loss of enthusiasm in previously enjoyable activities
  • Weight increase
  • Withdrawal

Causes

No specific cause has been discovered for seasonal affective disorder, however, as with other mental health issues it is likely that age, genetics, and chemical makeup all play a part. There are some indications that melatonin and serotonin levels may play a role as well as the individual’s circadian rhythm.

Tests

Seasonal affective disorder can be quite difficult to diagnose as it closely mimics other forms of depression. While there is no medical test for SAD, tests and exams can be used to rule out other causes for the depression. Certain criteria do have to be met for a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder to be made which include:

  • Symptoms are followed by periods that are symptom free.
  • Symptoms cannot be explained by other means.
  • Symptoms occur during the same season for a minimum of two consecutive years.

Treatments

Light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy are the most common treatments. Light therapy is usually the first treatment, because there are virtually no side effects. Some antidepressants have been used to successfully treat seasonal affective disorder. Psychotherapy can help make people more aware of what is happening to them and help them learn to deal with the symptoms, although it is unlikely to actually alleviate the symptoms. In extreme cases, people have been known to move from areas that experience drastic changes in the winter to areas that have much milder winters. Although it is possible for people to suffer with seasonal affective disorder in sunnier areas, such as Florida, it is much less common.

How to Help

Many people will suffer in silence thinking they simply have the holiday blues or that they are having a few bad weeks. Be sure to advertise the symptoms associated with the disorder to bring awareness to a larger group of people. Many people may be relieved to know that there is something wrong with them that can be treated and that other people feel the same way.

Have you treated a patient with seasonal affective disorder? What treatments have you found to be most effective?

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