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Understanding seasonal affective disorder

Brandon Paykamian • Oct 20, 2019 at 12:00 AM

About a month into fall, the weather is finally getting cooler once again. But with those cooler temperatures, we are experiencing more drab days.

After record-breaking heat over the summer, many have been looking forward to autumn, but not those of us bracing ourselves for seasonal affective disorder, a major recurrent depressive disorder that causes and exacerbates episodes of depression annually.

An estimated 10 million Americans are affected by it, and the disorder is most common in women ages 18-30, according to Psychology Today.

If you’re already prone to depressive tendencies the rest of the year, you too may be bracing yourself for less sunlight and less warmth. It might not help that this year, the fall colors are expected to be less vibrant here in Northeast Tennessee.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD (an appropriate acronym, might I add), is usually most prevalent in the winter months of December, January and February due to the colder weather and shorter days, but many experience a decline in energy and motivation as early as October.

Much of this has to do with the lack of sunlight as the days get shorter, which causes our brains to produce more melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy and lethargic. As this is happening, our brains produce less serotonin, the hormone responsible for managing stress and mood balance.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the symptoms of the “winter blues” often include increased suicidal thoughts, change in appetite, irritability, oversleeping, decreased physical activity, a “heavy” feeling in the limbs, hypersensitivity to social rejection, general dysphoria and more.

Treatment options can include some combination of light therapy, vitamin D supplementation, antidepressant medications (in serious cases) and counseling. Mental health experts recommend trying to stay physical while taking advantage of available sunlight whenever possible. It’s also important to plan pleasurable activities with friends whenever possible. 

Two years ago, when I touched on the topic with East Tennessee State University psychology professor Julia Dodd, I was bracing myself for a change in my own mood. She also recommended staying busy to maintain a positive attitude and resist the tendency to self-isolate.

“Some of the ways to ward that (SAD) off is to make sure you’re staying active, staying involved socially, doing the things you enjoy and getting out of the house as much as possible,” Dodd said.

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