It is that time of year again, the nights are darker, the air is colder, the leaves are turning. Yet for many people, this change of season signifies more than just the coming of winter; it can be related to a seasonal depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, known as SAD, is a type of depression that affects around half a million people every winter between September and April, most commonly between December and February. This seasonal depression is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in the winter months. It tends to affect younger people, especially those in their twenties and is thought to affect more women than men. For many (estimates of 7% of the population), SAD is a debilitating illness that prevents day-to-day functioning without medical treatment. Fortunately, for others it is a mild condition that causes discomfort but not extreme suffering; this milder type of SAD affects an estimated further 17% of the UK population.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Although the cause of SAD is not fully understood, it is thought to be linked to the body’s reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year that full within the winter months.
Biological Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Once cause of SAD is linked to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain stimulated by light, which controls mood appetite and sleep, and can affect the way you feel. In someone suffering from SAD, the lack of sunlight prevents the hypothalamus from working properly, which affects the production of certain hormones.
A second chemical cause is melatonin, which is a hormone that affects the way we sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland which helps us fall asleep. People with SAD produce much higher concentrated levels of melatonin in the winter months, which links directly with the symptoms of sleepiness, lethargy and lack of energy.
Thirdly, serotonin is a hormone that affects your mood, sleep patterns and appetite. It is also, importantly a neurotransmitter, meaning it is responsible for transmitting messages between your nerve cells. Sunlight is known to affect the production of serotonin and therefore lack of it can mean that messages between nerve cells are not being transmitted effectively, which is common with people with SAD, resulting in low mood and changes in appetite.
Finally we have the circadian rhythm, which is a psychological process helping to regulate your body’s internal clock. This lets you know when to sleep and when you should be awake. A reduced level of sunlight can help disturb this pattern, and as a result of this sleeping and waking patterns are often disrupted which are often linked to signs of depression.
Other Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Biology is not the only contributing cause to SAD. SAD can also be linked to genetic and family factors, such that the chemical imbalances that affect those with SAD may be passed genetically from our relatives. Personality and psychological factors, (such as if you are usually an anxious person) may directly also affect the likelihood of experiencing SAD. Finally social factors can play a contributing factor to those with SAD, such as social life outside working hours in the winter months and whether one has a solid circle of friends.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Symptoms vary from person to person as with all psychological conditions, however the following symptoms are often found in someone with SAD.
- Lethargy and Lack of Energy
- Sleep Difficulties
- Social Problems
- Impaired Functioning
- Loss of Libido
- Change of Mood with Longer Days
A diagnosis of SAD can be made after three or more consecutive winters of symptoms, so if you do feel you may have SAD it is worth noting down when your symptoms occur in relation to the calendar year for when you discuss it with your doctor or a psychologist.
What is the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder?: Counselling and Other Options
There are a variety of treatments for those with SAD that include both therapy and supplementing the lack of certain chemicals in the brain. The most common form of treatment for SAD is light therapy, which is effective in 85% of cases. This involves exposure for up to four hours a day to a very bright light, which must be at least ten times as intense as ordinary domestic lighting. Taking supplements of melatonin is also an approved treatment for SAD, as is ionized air administration. With regards to therapy and counselling options, cognitive behavioural therapy is proven to be very effective in treating those with SAD, due to the focus on changing the way one thinks and behaves to enable a more positive outlook and enable goals to be reached.
SAD can be a debilitating condition to live with for a significant sector of the UK population, and it can make the winter months seem never-ending. To deal with the symptoms of SAD, various treatments and counselling therapies are available to ensure a more positive winter season.