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What is "Seasonal Depression"?

Around the time of year when the weather turns colder and the daylight starts to dwindle, some students get tired and sad, but they don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they want winter break to come, maybe it’s because they don’t see their friends as often. But for some, this can be classified as something called “seasonal depression” otherwise known as a seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is related to change in the seasons. Most people’s symptoms start in the fall, and move into the winter months, making people feel moody and their energy drained. Less often do people find they are experiencing symptoms of SAD in the spring and summer, but it still occasionally occurs. Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include feeling depressed most of the day, losing interest in the activities you enjoy, having low energy and problems sleeping, feeling sluggish, agitated, or hopeless, and having a difficult time concentrating.

There are still questions about how seasonal affective disorder happens. However, there are some factors that may come into play. One of them is your circadian rhythm or your biological clock. Because of the reduction of sunlight in the fall and winter, your body clock is thrown off the typical rhythm it usually recognizes, therefore causing depressive feelings. Another factor that might contribute is the drop in serotonin and melatonin levels in the body. A drop in serotonin, which is a brain chemical that affects mood, is directly affected by the drop in sunlight. Similarly, the change in season can also affect the body’s levels of melatonin, which plays a role in sleeping patterns as well as mood.

Seasonal affective disorder is most commonly diagnosed in women more than men and is often found in young adults over older adults. There are a couple of risk factors that can contribute to the diagnosis of SAD. One factor is family history, meaning if several blood relatives have a similar depressive state or have SAD themselves, it will be more common. Another factor is having bipolar disorder or a severe depressive condition, as these will make you more predisposed to having SAD. Another factor is living far from the equator. Seasonal affective disorder appears to be more common in people who live very far North or South to the equator, as living farther from it means there is less sunlight during the winter.

Seasonal affective disorder is sometimes hard to spot in friends and family. Symptoms should be taken seriously, just like any other type of depression. Some symptoms may include social withdrawal, problems with school or work, substance abuse, extreme anxiety, and strange depressive behavior.

How do professionals diagnose this disorder? It can be extremely difficult for a professional to diagnose this disorder because it presents very similar to many other types of depression or other mental health-related concerns. Typically, doctors will do a very thorough examination, which typically includes several different things. First, a general physical exam. Sometimes, this type of depression can be linked to an underlying physical health issue that needs to be resolved. Then, they perform lab testing, such as a complete blood count (CBC) test to make sure your thyroid is functioning correctly. After that, they may do a psychological evaluation. To check for multiple signs of depression, a mental health professional may ask you about your symptoms, thoughts, and feelings, as well as examine some behavior patterns. Some health professionals may also use a DSM-5, which is a set of criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

There are different types of possible treatments for seasonal affective disorder, some of which include light therapy, medications, and psychotherapy. Light therapy is when a patient will stand in front of a box of light for the first hour after you wake up. This special type of light is intended to mimic the natural outdoor light and is proven to cause positive changes in brain chemicals linked to mood. This is typically the first chosen route of therapy, as it is a quick way to start the rehabilitation as well as causes very few side effects. Other routes can include medication such as antidepressants if symptoms are severe. Another therapy route is psychotherapy, or talk therapy. Talk therapy can help you manage stress, learn how to cope with seasonal affective disorder, and identify how to change negative thoughts and behaviors.

Some at-home options that may benefit someone suffering from seasonal affective disorder is to make the environment sunnier and brighter, get outside and go on walks, and exercise regularly. Those who are affected by seasonal affective disorder need to remember to take care of themselves and stick to a treatment or therapy plan that works for them.


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