Seasonal affective disorder is more than the winter blues

Seasonal affective disorder is like a holiday guest who overstays their welcome, Huntsville resident Katie Hall said with a laugh.

I always make the joke that my normal depression invites the seasonal depression to come and stay here for a few months and make a mess of the house, says Hall.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has similar symptoms to major depressive disorder but is only present at certain times of the year, usually during the fall and winter months, according to Dr. Megan Hays, an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Heersink School of Medicine.

Hays noted the difference between SAD and the winter blues, which occur when the stressors of the holiday season and shorter daylight hours upset the mood. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes SAD as significant changes in your mood and behavior when the seasons change.

SAD can occur with changes in other seasons, but it’s more common in the winter, according to the NIH.

Some of the more troubling symptoms of SAD include intense feelings of hopelessness, sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts, Hays says.

Hall struggles with depression year-round, but during the winter months, she says her symptoms include extreme feelings of sadness and extreme fatigue.

“I would be extremely tired throughout the day no matter what I did, no matter how much sleep I got, how much caffeine I drank,” Hall said. He also experiences muscle pain and tension.

Huntsville resident Melody Young said she only experiences depression during the winter months and doesn’t hate life during the warmer seasons.

I love my life. I love my hobbies. I love my family. I love my friends. Why do I feel sad sometimes? Young wondered for more than a decade until he spoke with a doctor who diagnosed him with SAD several years ago.

According to the NIH, other symptoms include memory or concentration issues and changes in appetite or weight. Researchers are still determining the cause of SAD. There are links to reductions in serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood, and vitamin D deficiency, both due to reduced levels of sun exposure.

A lot of research points toward light because light is actually the primary regulator of our bodies’ biological clock or circadian rhythm, Hays said.

Treatment for SAD may include anti-depressants and phototherapy. Hays says phototherapy or light therapy is as simple as spending more time outside or using a lightbox with at least 10,000 lux. Hall and Young went outside and used lightboxes in their home and workplace and noticed an improvement in mood.

Hall says she’s been taking vitamin D supplements, incorporating physical activity into her daily routine, and seeing a therapist.

“I’m a big advocate for therapy,” Hall said. I wish everyone in the world had a therapist, because you can only really benefit from it.

Young says tracking her symptoms throughout the year is a worthwhile long-term project, along with seeing a doctor and pursuing the right treatment.

Just trusting your gut and knowing that you have to listen to the little cues that your body or mind might be telling you, that’s the key, Young says.

Hays says socializing and staying connected with friends and family can help with SAD.

We know that even if you don’t feel like it, getting some emotional support and being around others can help combat feelings of isolation, Hays says.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is experiencing a crisis, please dial 988 or text HOME to 741741 to speak or text someone at the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. For more information, visit 988lifeline.org and CrisisTextLine.org.

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