What is SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)?

What is SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)With ‘S.A.D.’ being its appropriate abbreviation, seasonal affective disorder is a complex, but often treatable mood condition that stretches nearly all age groups.  It is unique in that it is often hard to diagnose unless you are familiar with what it is and how it affects the human brain.  In essence, seasonal affective disorder is having periodic states of depression depending on what calendar month it is.  This means that while you may feel fine and display a positive temperament for most of the year, for 1-3 months you can experience withdrawal and an overall lower quality of life.  Most frequently SAD occurs in the winter months, though is also known to take ahold of a person during summer as well, depending on where they are living.

The reason the winter season is the most prominent for SAD disorder to reveal itself is because the days are shorter due to daylight savings time.  More specifically, “rolling back” the clock makes it appear as if there are fewer hours of sunlight during the day, and this adversely affects the brain due to human’s predisposition of attributing brightness with happiness.  Because winter is often cold, dark and dreary in the early evening, we are susceptible to falling under the spell of being anxious for sunlight to return.  Additionally, when it is dimmer than normal in the afternoon, those influenced by seasonal affective disorder feel as though they have to go to sleep earlier.  This seems as though it wouldn’t be a problem, but the reality is that the sooner a person goes to bed, the less sleep they think they have gained in the morning, because their previous day was ‘cut short.’

It is a myth that summer months cannot be attributed to causing seasonal affective disorder because people who are primarily based in ‘dark’ regions can have the opposite reaction to those craving light.  Inhabitants in places like Alaska, which has longer stretches of time of being completely dark, can acquire some of the symptoms of typical SAD patients.  This is obviously less prominent, as most who go through this experience need light, but all the same is an important subset of people that need help and should not forgotten.  The Sydney Morning Herald also backs up that spring lethargy is a very real occurrence, because the light and temperature change together changes a person’s metabolism by slowing it down, causing them unwanted drowsiness and fatigue.

This disorder is often overlooked because it shares a lot of the same warning signs as other types of depression.  What differentiates SAD from the pack of a myriad of other mental health issues is that seasonal affective disorder relies heavily on a predictable pattern of discontent.  This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but when those suffering from the condition know an upcoming month will be problematic for their psyche, a heightened sense of anxiety is reached.  Sometimes fear of an oncoming problem can be just as paralyzing as the issue itself.

One of the dangers in characterizing SAD is that it can be misdiagnosed in place of something potentially even more alarming and damaging; bipolar disorder.  To be perfectly happy one month and exhibit the total opposite behavior the next can appear extremely bipolar to medical physicians.  According to doctors, only about 20% of people suffering from seasonal affective disorder are actually bipolar, leaving a whopping 80% that could potentially be put on medication for something they are not even involved with.  One of the telltale signs that someone is bipolar as opposed to being in SAD’s grasp are inconsistent mood swings.  Being generally withdrawn due to lack of sunlight and an altered sleep schedule is far different than showing numerous opposing emotions in a 24 hour span.  Though not exclusively, most SAD patients are consistent in their negative feelings and habits, whereas those who are genuinely bipolar exhibit behavior patterns that change rapidly.

Seasonal depression can be a terrifying condition in particular for those that are very outgoing and otherwise pleasant, but the good news is that there are plenty of affordable treatment options available, some of which are even free.  It can be disconcerting if you feel as though you may have succumbed to seasonal affective disorder, so it is worthwhile to understand its symptoms before it happens again.  If you or someone you know is fighting through SAD, knowing how it is affecting your brain and why it is causing you to change as a person is hugely important.  As far as addressing it head on, it is always better to be prepared than to leave your head space to chance.

What Is The History Of Sad Syndrome?

The National Institute of Mental Health, under the guise of Norman Rosenthal, were the first to coin the name of what came to be known as seasonal affective disorder.  Even though this was in 1984, thirty years of research gathered gave them profound confidence to label the condition and accurately deduce thousands, if not millions of people suffered from it.  Rosenthal, with fellow scientist Alfred Lewy, were researching melatonin and its relationship to our sleep habits.  Rosenthal in particular felt compelled to discover an explanation as to why his mood and sleep schedule changed during winter months.  Symptoms, diagnosis and frequency were discussed with regularity, coming to the unmistakable conclusion that treatment of interrupted sleep patterns was occasionally successful when light therapy was introduced.  This was a time consuming process that had to be replicated several times to prove that the exercises themselves were not just a result of luck or chance.

Seasonal affective disorder became a ‘slow burn’ in gaining traction in the medical field because it was dismissed for years, as symptoms of the condition were placed under the umbrella of other ailments.  Skepticism from doctors eventually led to frustration from those convinced they were experiencing something influenced by the changing of seasons.  On face value the notion can seem silly, but once the science behind it became common knowledge, licensed physicians dedicated themselves to its cure.  The more SAD became understood and diagnosed, the more accurate treatment was delivered to patients.

While Norman Rosenthal’s book ‘Winter Blues’ became a point of reference for other doctors, it was actually research engineer Herb Kern’s efforts in the seventies to cure his own seasonal depression that really jump-started the movement.  Regardless of who ran the race, it is a marathon still run by doctors today, as SAD is an ever-evolving disorder that necessitates prompt solutions in more serious cases.

Who Is The Most Susceptible To Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Interestingly, there are very few factors that separate people struggling with this condition.  It is an inexact science determining who will feel its symptoms, but studies have shown it typically affects women more than men.  Family history may also play a significant role in whether or not you will become a SAD statistic.  If your lineage is predisposed to seasonal mood swings, it is highly likely you will be next.  Perhaps most intriguing is that SAD often captures people housed further away from the equator than those near it; a fact that re-emphasizes that shorter days in winter and longer days in summer alter our frame of mind.  In fact it is so recognized in Sweden and Norway that they proactively try to address it for their citizens via recommended treatment techniques.

Ultimately, nearly 3 million people surveyed or treated have ‘identified’ with the condition, a huge number that personifies just how many of us may have it and not even realize.

What Are The Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Several people all over the world are currently experiencing ‘blues disease’ but are none the wiser due to not being educated on the matter.  Luckily there are numerous red flags exhibited by those struggling with the winter months, and here are a few that you should be on the lookout for:

Sleep is the most common area affected by SAD because we all rely on a good night of rest to be active, motivated and happy.  Because all three of these areas are negatively altered by SAD, it is a logical starting point if you are attempting to discover if you suffer from the condition.  An abundance of research has produced just how important light is to seratonin and melatonin in humans and animals.  These two things have a mutual relationship with one another, and are co-dependent on what each provides the body.  More specifically, because it gets darker sooner in the day, the suprachiasmatic nucleus in our hypothalamus tells the pineal gland that melatonin should be released at a time earlier than normal.  This is not ideal because melatonin lowers our heart rates and relaxes us for ‘bedtime.’  Of course this is all very technical in nature, but in breaking it down, what is ultimately altered is our circadian rhythm.  It is prudent to think of circadian rhythm like our internal alarm clock, telling us when to go to sleep and when to wake up.  When light and darkness are appearing at times our brain is not used to, it is like the circadian rhythm ‘alarm’ is not going off in your head.  If you have ever had a frazzled morning running late because your alarm didn’t sound, you can start to see why this can change your mood and overall day so much.

Feeling worthless or that things are hopeless in life are other indicators you have SAD.  When we feel as though there is not enough time in the day to get things accomplished, we become withdrawn and don’t have the motivation to move forward.  When these feelings are mixed with removing oneself from social interaction, the problem of this disorder is compounded.  Like every condition, just like a bad pattern may get you into your negative frame of mind, a positive pattern can get you out of it.

Overeating is noticeable in those with this issue because they are indulging at times of the day they are not used to.  Occasionally this means dinner too early, or snacking in the middle of the night.  Carbohydrates in particular are craved, which has a direct correlation to weight gain in several patients of this affliction.

Loss of sex drive and recurring agitation at the notion of intimacy may tip the scales into you realizing you harbor some symptoms of SAD.  This also branches into other similar areas like lack of concentration and anxiety.

Displaying a lethargic demeanor is a surefire way to raise your physician’s suspicions as well.  While most of us are sluggish from time to time, to continuously feel this way during winter months in accordance with any of the aforementioned signs is a bad combination.  Getting out of bed in the morning is tough for everyone, but SAD patients specifically struggle in this area, and often times do not rise out of bed at all, even if they cannot fall asleep.

How Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Manifest Itself In The Beginning?

A huge problem with any sort of condition is that most of the time people are not aware of when it has started.  The earlier it is identified, the easier it is to treat, but obviously one bad mood does not necessarily mean you are on the path to a lifestyle of discontent.  To be clear, symptoms usually begin to occur in teenage years.  It is unusual to have a person older in age experience this out of the blue, but not unheard of.  With children, often they simply to not have the mental capacity (or interest) to make the association between outside light and brain chemistry.  Moreover, children more easily accept their surroundings, even if the environment is negative.

SAD is and should be measured in a case by case basis, but there are some indicators when it is going to spring up.  During the ‘fall back’ daylight savings adjustment, if it takes you a week or more to adapt to your sleep schedule, there is a good chance you may have run into SAD.  Changing sleep habits can take some practice, but if you are feeling like you are carrying a ton of bricks on your back despite earlier bedtimes, this lethargy is a bad sign, especially if your motivation has gone out the window.  The problem is one setback usually begets another, and it is more difficult to stop a boulder moving downhill.

How Can You Self-Diagnose SAD Syndrome?

For starters, you should never self diagnose or medicate if your symptoms appear serious.  Even if you do not view them as such, be honest with yourself on how your body FEELS as well your mental state.  That being said, it can be advantageous to make a list of symptoms you find that keep popping up in a pattern.  Are you always sad during the same months?  During these time periods do you go to bed earlier, eat later, or become more withdrawn?  Every person handles their lifestyle differently based on personality and necessity, but we all have to maintain basic needs like food and rest.  If both of these areas are polar opposite from where they normally are in other months, you may have seasonal affective disorder.

You should always double-down on the notion of seeking professional help if any of the warning flags are consistently displaying themselves to you.  Not only is it better to be safe than sorry, but if you wait to obtain help it may be too late to circumvent any long term damage.  Often people suffering from SAD choose not to visit the doctor because they figure it will just be over “in a month or two.”  This is a negligent and dangerous way of thinking, as seasonal affective disorder can induce suicidal thoughts, of which patience is never a virtue.

Frequently it is simpler to notice something obtuse about someone else rather than yourself, and if you are noticing troublesome symptoms, you have an obligation to let that person in on your knowledge.

How Do You Know When Your Seasonal Depression Is Ending?

The no-brainer answer is that if you are feeling happy, you have likely turned the corner.  This is not always the case, as ‘relapse’ is just as prevalent with mental disorders as it is with substance abuse.  Cloud cover, even on a sunny day, can be enough to flip the switch back to feeling moody.  This is not your fault, in fact, your brain has created a pattern of thinking negatively because it became used to this routine.  The human body can be manipulated by several factors: food, drink, sleep, demeanor; however all it ever truly craves is to maintain a level of consistent rhythm.  An object in motion tends to stay in motion, so the more winter days you spend down in the dumps, the more your brain is associating these feelings with the status quo.

Scheduling is everything for those suffering from SAD, and you may even have to write down when you wake up and go to bed each day.  This is beneficial because it can give you a road map as to days that were worse than others, and how to avoid your habits and dieting on them.  More than that, in keeping a chart of your sleep times and mood swings, you will able to pinpoint at which point in the year that your mental health improves and you are officially ‘out of the woods’ of its effects.  You never want to be the subject of your own science experiment, but if it spares you of grief in the future, it is well worth it.

Seasonal Affective Disorder In Teenagers

SAD is a concerning condition for people of any age group, but it is especially of interest in young people.  The reason for this is because seasonal affective disorder in teenagers is harder to spot and can be missed if not handled appropriately.  Men and women under the age of 20 already have raging hormones to deal with, and if you have met one moody teen you have likely met them all.  Moreover, teenagers have erratic sleep schedules, and if enrolled in school, plenty of anxiety for exams and their academic future.  Sniffing out this condition early is vital because teens are already emotional.  Compounding this with SAD is like lighting a match next to a gallon of gasoline.  When emotional, people are more likely to be negatively influenced by things around them; people, ideas, and yes, even lack of sunlight.  This goes double for younger crowds, and having an honest conversation with your son or daughter about what is ailing them is an intelligent preparatory path to take.  Counseling is a respected course that has its upside, but do not put all your eggs in one basket if your gut feeling is that something more is going on.  Your teen may not even be aware of it, and most entertain the misguided myth that they can solve the issue on their own.  If SAD has a history in your bloodline, do not allow stubbornness to keep you from notifying your family at their potential of predisposition to the ailment.

Why Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Commonly Mentioned In Regards To Travel?

Similar to teens experiencing light withdrawal, people who travel encounter added obstacles like jet lag and time zone change.  This, mixed with the winter blues, robs them of necessary sunlight to carry on their day with purpose and persistence.

Jet lag has a close relationship with SAD because it can completely flip a person’s body clock schedule.  While on vacation it may not be a big deal to sleep in the next day, but thousands of people travel for their jobs putting their careers at risk of being terminated if they cannot perform at a high level.  Undoubtedly when you have traveled in the past you have also dealt with a change in time zone, and nothing is more jarring than feeling like you have more hours before you realize that where you are currently it is ‘bedtime.’

A plethora of solutions present themselves for these situations, but what is most commonly used by the masses are SAD lamps.  SAD lamps are fixtures that emit light to replicate a ‘normal’ 24 hour period that you personally are accustomed to.  The reason why these lamps are so coveted in travel situations is because many of them are portable, and small enough to bring inside luggage.  Just because you cross county, state, or country lines does not make this disorder disappear, so having a quick and efficient solution is sometimes just what the doctor ordered, literally.

SAD lamps for travel are utilized in many ways, and its proponents talk frequently about how convenient it is to mount them on desks or in hotel rooms.  Reviews of SAD lamps also regularly mention how they prefer brands that offer an adjustment switch or dial, so that the amount of light can be manipulated to a specific person’s desire.

The success of a SAD lamp during travel is measured in how it is consistently used.  This is to say that if you are emitting light at 6pm every evening, you should continue to abide by that schedule as closely as possible until you no longer feel the symptoms of the condition.  Erratic or spontaneous use of SAD lamps is never recommended but even more so during traveling because you end up confusing your circadian rhythm.

If you are in the boat that feels like you want to introduce a lamp into your travels, pay attention to what you are buying and why.  SAD lamps come with different features that focus on things that may not even be pertinent to you.

We also like the portability of newer red light therapy devices and light therapy glasses.

Various Treatments For Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD light therapy is the most common solution, and is a treatment choice that is dedicated to replicating the nature of sun rays, and even the seasons.  This is done through the aforementioned lamps emitting light in a controlled state that can be repeated to maintain consistency and generate feedback through trial and error.  Light therapy can go from affordable to expensive in a hurry if you don’t know what you are buying, so discussing this technique with your physician is recommended.  This path has gained in popularity steadily because most of the time the option is portable and can be with you at all times, within reason.  SAD lamps also have a long track record, with Norman Rosenthal himself using a variation of them years ago.

Talk therapy is another treatment for SAD and is little different than a standard psychiatrist visit.  It can be a fruitful endeavor because those suffering through this disorder typically become withdrawn for long periods of time.  Talk therapy aims to, well, keep you talking, so as to curb desires to be alone and not be sociable.  This type of therapy is not for everyone, as some get anxiety just from the idea of having someone listen to their problems, which of course is the very thing they are trying to circumvent.  This option can also be expensive, but if done even just once a week during the necessary months, can help enormously.  Even if you choose not to go to someone licensed in this field, making a concerted effort to be conversational with people during this dark time is wise.

Vitamins can be advantageous to eliminate SAD, but it goes without saying this starts treading into the waters of ‘consult a professional.’  Even though most vitamins are harmless if taken in moderation, you want to be sure that you don’t have any allergies or additional ailments that may get in the way of them actually working.  Because SAD deprives you of the health benefits of the sun, B and D vitamins in particular can bridge the gap to making you feel healthier, and in turn, better equipped to face the day.  A study found in the pocket health guide ‘Nutrients’ opined in 2014 that those who consistently ingested natural levels of D vitamin had decreased feelings of sadness and depression.  Some users swear by vitamins over light and talk therapy because they are directly ingested in your blood stream, whereas the other avenues are more theory based than fact.  A downside to vitamins is that those living the disorder start deciding their own doses, and because too much of any ‘good’ drug can be harmful, this is not ideal.  Furthermore, since melatonin is affected by the condition, self-proclaimed doctors often decide that more of these pills can do the trick.  In the short term this can give you a massive headache, and in the long term it could make you more sleepy even outside of the winter months when SAD is bothering you.

Dawn simulators are not to be confused with the light therapy of SAD lamps because the former are more or less alarm clocks that give the gradual illusion that the sun is rising.  SAD lamps are the more black and white solution, meaning it is either a harsh light or black, whereas dawn simulators attempt to convince you that sunrises and sunsets are occurring in ‘real time.’  Dawn simulators are ideal in rooms without windows because it can produce the illusion at your beck and call regardless of environment.  These devices have a bit of a learning curve since most people do not know the exact time they wake up each day unless they abide by a strict schedule. Further developments in the field have resulted in light therapy glasses and red light therapy devices.

Aromatherapy is a choice people embark on if they are very sensitive to smell.  Scientifically, certain scents tell our brains to be alert, or conversely, wind down.  Lavender is an odor that historically calms people and occasionally induces sleepy habits, which is why it is often found in detergents for washing bedding.  All treatments vary from person to person, but aromatherapy is one that really depends on how much smell influences your body on a daily basis.  When you take in certain scents do you feel excited?  Scared?  Calm?  Some individuals experience almost a hypnotic reaction to smells, while others feel nothing.  If you are on a budget, aromatherapy is an inexpensive way to ‘get started’ with oils and candles being nothing more than a few dollars.

Writing your thoughts out in a journal is a rewarding path if you have many emotions to express but talk therapy isn’t for you.  Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of expressing their depression with a stranger, or even a friend for that matter, but putting feelings on the page is a practice most psychiatrists get behind.  In theory, your head is cleared of anxious ‘clutter,’ and you are more open to the idea of different periods of sunlight and darkness.  Penning your concerns and reflections at night are conducive because it gives you the ability to look back on the day and see how the condition influenced you in a 24 hour period.  If you are one of the unfortunate that has the seasonal pattern return to depress you the following winter, a journal can help you learn from your mistakes or remember how you handled it the first time.

If you don’t fancy yourself as a writer, meditation is a worthwhile alternative to alleviate the stress that comes along with SAD.  Full body relaxation releases hormones that stimulate the pineal gland and release melatonin.  As a result, the prefrontal cortex generates increased levels of activity in the areas of the brain that promote happiness.  Buddhist monks regularly participate in this activity, and are known the world over as being some of the most positive thinking people on the planet.  At worst, feedback from individuals who have tried meditation state that they were able to get a better handle on their emotions, even if their condition didn’t fully improve.

Just the idea of exercising when you are tired will make you yawn, if you are not already from SAD, but more than just the positive results on your body is what it does to ‘work out’ your mind.  Having a defined schedule of fitness releases endorphins which put you in a happy, focused state.  Exercising is also markedly better than antidepressants because there are no side effects, only production.

The route of antidepressants is 100 percent at the discretion of your physician, and is almost universally the most expensive selection for your wallet.  If you are experiencing SAD for months at a time, refills and dose amounts can add up quickly.  That being said, if none of the previously mentioned treatment options work for you, they are at minimum a choice to consider with caution.  Antidepressants have a negative connotation because they can be abused, but if you have undergone extensive sleep studies it may be the best solution to regulate your brain activity.

What Makes For The Best SAD Lamps?

Because SAD lamps are almost universally accepted as a treatment at least worth trying, it is smart to peel back the onion on what makes a good one.

SAD lamps will not cure every single person who feels depressed about season and time changes, but they are perennially considered one of the most reliable and cost-efficient way to attack your disorder head on.  There are things to make a mental note of that make for a good SAD lamp if you are looking to purchase one.

Brightness. 

Light therapy seems pretty unimpressive if it cannot adequately reflect the power of the sun.  There is more than one school of thought on how much power a SAD lamp should emit, but most consumer feedback agrees that 10,000 lux is the standard.  If your lighting solution cannot handle this level then you are effectively trying to solve a condition with a desk lamp.

Portability.

As you know, when you travel, depression travels with you.  Although we wish we could leave it at our doorstep upon exiting, a solution is needed to address symptoms on the go.  Believe it or not, not every SAD lamp is portable, and some have enormous banks of lights to illuminate a whole room or house.  If you have the luxury of never having to leave, these are terrific, but most of us live a busier lifestyle.  A good SAD lamp should be relatively easy to store in a container or bag for quick, effortless travel.

Mounting.

Depending on the environment you are traveling to, mounting your lamp may not always apply to you, but never will you come across a situation where it is a drawback.  Some patients need the light to shine from a specific place; for example, from the ceiling where sunlight ‘normally’ comes in.  Mounting is also important if they need to be secured in places like dressers and desks.

Adjustment Dial.

Again, this will not apply to everyone, but having the autonomy to adjust your levels of light (and when they emit) is hugely appealing to those dealing with this disorder.  It goes without saying that with a dial comes limitless freedom in how and where your light emits.  Remember, some of us have a sensitivity to light on our skin, and if you fall in this camp an adjustment dial can be a lifesaver.

White and Blue Light.

Most SAD lamps produce solely white light, but some people’s corneas and circadian rhythms respond more delicately to blue light.  The fact of the matter is we all interpret light differently, so finding the proper shade of it to manipulate your brain is worth the research.

Timers.

Timers are not the same thing as dawn simulators because the former is typically needed for people that cannot get up or have limited movement to adjust settings.  Dawn simulators are more of an art that attempts to bring science into the fold by ‘timing’ a traditional sunset.  Timers are also more pertinent to patients on doctors orders who are told to take in ‘an hour of light therapy a day’, or otherwise.

LED Technology.

The use of LED gives a cleaner, more uniformed beam of light, but more than that, eliminates light bulb replacement altogether.

Longevity.

Reading feedback on each SAD lamp is a must to avoid buying brands that will fizzle out after a few months.  Light therapy that can stand the test of time is integral to proper treatment of the condition since it reoccurs in patterns.

Conclusion

There are really only two adages that should be remembered at all times when treating SAD:  consistency and patience.  Giving the ailment your best shot with a well-defined plan that you stick to will increase the odds dramatically in eliminating it from your life altogether.

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