Twenty percent of the population experiences some seasonal
fluctuation in sleep and mood; 1-10% of the population meet the criteria for
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Although many people are affected in
some way by the changing seasons, for most people, these changes do not
cause problems. For people who suffer from SAD, there is a greater
sensitivity to the lack of natural light in winter. The following
information is designed to increase understanding of the disorder and may help
those who suffer from it to seek help and support:
Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a mood disorder characterized by fall/winter depression alternating with
spring/summer elation or "normal" moods. The key indicator for SAD is
seasonality. Usually, symptoms will appear sometime in the fall and
will remit sometimes in the spring. Exactly when a person's symptoms begin
and end varies by individual.
Symptoms of SAD
Drop in energy level
Reduction in sex drive
Reduction in the quality of sleep
Avoidance of social situations
Inability to complete tasks
Change in appetite (especially
craving for sweet or starchy foods)
Change in sleep/wake patterns
(especially a tendency to oversleep)
Some of these
symptoms also may stem from other seasonal stressors such as family holidays or
the anniversary or recent loss of a loved one. If these symptoms are
accompanied by continual feelings of deep depression, worthlessness or recurring
thoughts of death or harming oneself, these are signs to seek help.
Facts about SAD
Not all SAD
sufferers have the same set of symptoms.
Some SAD sufferers are affected whenever there are several
overcast days in a row, regardless of the season.
The onset of SAD typically occurs in an individual's third
decade of life, however, younger persons are at higher risk, 4-13% of children
and adolescents meet criteria for SAD. Symptoms for children include:
Feeling tired and cranky
Vague physical complaints
Reluctance to do chores or homework when in the past he/she would
Increased craving for junk food
Women make up 60% - 90% of persons with SAD
The condition is more likely to affect people living in the
northern latitudes, where the winter days are shorter and nights longer.
Not just the "Winter Blues" Commonly thought of as the "holiday blues" or Christmas depression" a
season-long cause of the "blahs" is a form of depression for some people.
This condition takes on nearly debilitating proportions for some of its
sufferers who may feel as though they cannot get out of bed all winter long.
Morning sunshine, so plentiful during the warmest months of the year, naturally
suppresses melatonin, the body's sleep inducing hormone. Dark winter
mornings leave melatonin levels high, and sufferers feeling sluggish, for months
at a stretch. SAD involves both biological and psychological factors.
Treatment for SAD As with any mood disorder, any treatment for SAD should be undertaken under
the guidance of a qualified health professional. Exposure to bright light,
known as phototherapy, has been found to be an effective method of
treating SAD. Individual sensitivity to the light therapy varies, so it is
necessary to work with a health professional in order to determine the optimal
intensity, duration, and time of day for the treatment. Medication is
generally considered less effective than light therapy for the treatment of SAD,
however, it is often used to supplement light therapy or used for those who
cannot tolerate light therapy.
Other Helpful Strategies
Increase amount of available indoor light by adding
windows, lamps, and skylights
Use bright colors in decorating
Ask to be seated by windows at restaurants and take "window
breaks" regularly at work
Feelings of warmth (e.g. drinking hot tea, wrapping up in a
blanket) have been reported to help
Healthy diet and exercise habits
Advice for dealing with family and friends with SAD
Learn all that you can about SAD and inform your loved ones
that there is help available
Encourage and remind them that their problems may be
seasonal and will likely pass
Avoid being judgmental and critical, as the SAD individual
is likely already feeling that they have let themselves and others down
Don't take the withdrawal from social engagement displayed
by many SAD individuals as personal
Don't assume it's your responsibility to make them feel