It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
So why are you so SAD?
By Annette Benedetti
The air has turned crisp, the first flakes of winter have fallen, and the excitement in the air is almost palpable. Central Oregon’s late fall and winter months are arguably the most magical of the year. Your children squeal with excitement as they watch lights go up around the neighborhood and talk about visits from family members and the sleigh rides in Sunriver that lay ahead. While you smile on the outside and show delight at every holiday-themed art project that is brought home, what you are feeling on the inside is very different.
It’s not that you don’t look forward to visits from family members, skiing and snowboarding, or all of the tasty food that comes along with the season; but every year at this time, when the faces of young and old alike begin to glow with excitement and joy, your feelings don’t just fall flat—they are downright low.
If you find yourself feeling down around this time of year every year, you may be experiencing Seasonal affective disorder (appropriately referred to as SAD). While SAD can also occur during the summer months, the “winter version” of this disorder is quite common and can make enjoying a season that is typically filled with festivities and fun particularly difficult to endure.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that correlates with seasonal changes. SAD begins and ends at the same time every year—most often beginning in fall, continuing into winter, and ending in spring. Sufferers may experience a wide variety of symptoms that make participating in daily activities difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst. SAD can affect everyone, however those most likely to experience SAD include women between the ages of 15 and 55 and individuals with close relatives that have struggled with this condition. SAD can be particularly challenging for mothers who are already struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety.
The symptoms of SAD include:
- Feeling sad, irritable, or anxious
- Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy
- Difficulty connecting with others
- Low energy
- A change in appetite that includes craving carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- A heavy feeling in your arms and legs
How is SAD diagnosed?
If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms above consistently over the course of several weeks, you should see your family doctor or consult a mental health counselor. Because SAD is a type of depression, your health professional will conduct an evaluation that will most likely include:
A physical exam. This exam will include questions about your physical, mental, and emotional health history.
A mental health assessment. This assessment may include a questionnaire that will help your doctor identify behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that indicate you are suffering from depression.
Blood tests. Issues with your thyroid may result in symptoms that are similar to those of SAD. A simple blood test can determine the status of your thyroid’s health.
The good news is that being diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t mean you are doomed to a lifetime of holiday blues. There are effective treatments as well as lifestyle adjustments that will allow you to enjoy Central Oregon’s winter wonderland right alongside your children.
While the specific cause of SAD remains somewhat of a mystery, what researchers and professionals do know is that there are specific factors that play a big role in its presence. They include:
Serotonin: A reduction in sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a chemical in the brain that affects mood, which is believed to trigger depression.
Melatonin: Seasonal changes may affect melatonin levels in your body. Melatonin affects your quality of sleep, as well as your sleep patterns.
While having a second home in a location that is warm and sunny throughout the fall and winter months, seems like a simple enough solution to your SAD conundrum, it’s simply not a realistic one for everyone. Some less-drastic lifestyle adjustments you can start making immediately that can help alleviate your SAD symptoms include: getting outside into natural daylight as early and as much as possible, exercising regularly, and making sure your home environment gets as much natural light as possible.
If these adjustments don’t quite cut it and you find yourself continuing to battle the seasonal blues, there are highly affective treatments available that you should ask your healthcare provider about:
Light therapy: Also referred to as phototherapy, light therapy involves sitting within a few feet of a special light therapy box. These boxes expose you to bright light that causes a change in brain chemicals that are linked to mood. Most people experience positive affects within a few days to two weeks. This is the most common therapy used for SAD.
Should you decide to move forward with this form of therapy, your doctor will advise you on which light box to purchase and how to proceed with your therapy.
Medications: When absolutely necessary, antidepressants may be used to treat SAD. The most common medications prescribed are: Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, and Effexor.
Regardless of which treatment approach you and your healthcare professional decide is best for you, consider seeking out a counselor who specializes in SAD. Having extra support throughout the holiday months will help ensure that you don’t miss sharing the joy and wonder of the season with your loved ones ever again.