Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mental illness that causes symptoms of depression during the autumn, winter, and early spring. According to American Family Physician, 4-6% of the United States population suffers from SAD, while anywhere from 10-20% of the population experience a milder form of SAD where they only suffer from a few depressive symptoms. SAD is more prevalent in areas farther from the equator, making it very common in New England.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- Feeling sad, anxious, and/or hopeless
- Increased irritability and moodiness
- Loss of interest in daily activities
- Overeating and increased cravings for high carb foods
- Changes in weight
- Sleeping more than usual
- Lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Withdrawal from social life
- Trouble sleeping
Some people are at higher risk of developing SAD. Women are more likely to develop SAD than men. Also, people between the ages of 15 and 55 are most at risk for developing SAD, though it is uncommon to develop SAD after 55. As is the case with many mental illnesses, if you have a relative who suffers from SAD, you are more likely to also be diagnosed. People with other mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder, often experience more severe symptoms during the winter months.
Scientists do not know the exact cause of SAD, but they believe it may be caused by the effects that a lack of sunlight has on the brain and body. Shorter days affect the body’s circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep and mood throughout the day. Irregular mood and sleep patterns can be results of disrupted circadian rhythms. Also, serotonin levels decrease when the body is exposed to less sunlight. Low serotonin levels often cause symptoms of depression.
Thankfully, there are effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder. The main treatment for SAD is light therapy. Light therapy has been used to treat SAD since the 80’s. The treatment consists of sitting in front of a light box that mimics natural sunlight for a half hour to two hours daily. Typically the price of a light therapy box is between $50 and $100. The Health and Wellness Center at UNH offers light therapy treatments to students with the light box tyhat they have on-site. Kathleen Grace-Bishop, the Health and Wellness Center’s Director of Health Education and Support Services, said that most individuals start with fifteen minutes to a half hour of light therapy, and usually do the treatment in the morning. According to Kathleen Grace-Bishop another light box will be purchased for THRIVE, located in the Hamel Rec Center. You do not need to be diagnosed with SAD to utilize the light therapy service.
Getting an official diagnosis for SAD can be helpful in developing a treatment plan. Kathleen Grace-Bishop says, “We have healthcare providers to make an appropriate diagnosis for individuals.”
Meeting with a provider can help students find the best course of treatment, which may include medication. The most commonly prescribed medications for SAD are extended release versions of the antidepressant bupropion. Other antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), are also used if bupropion is ineffective such. Typically, people will begin taking the medication in early autumn, and stop taking it in the spring when there is plenty of natural light. The Health and Wellness Center also has a nutritionist on staff. Meeting with a nutritionist can be beneficial to individuals suffering from SAD, because they can help to develop a healthy diet that will minimize the weight gain and poor food choices associated with SAD. Also, UNH has mental health professionals at the Psychology and Counseling Services that students can meet with for counseling.
Aside from traditional treatments, there are many easy things people can do to manage their SAD symptoms themselves. Health experts recommend making your environment brighter. Keep your blinds up during the day to let in natural light, and try to sit close to the window. Also, be sure to have ample lighting in your home. Try to spend time outside. Even though it may be cold or cloudy, the natural light still has a positive effect on the mind and body. Another tried and true way to manage any mood disorder is regular exercise. Rhythmic exercises, like running, swimming, and walking, have been found to be particularly beneficial. It is best to do your run or walk outside while it is still light out. Grace-Bishop also suggests seeking counseling if these activities are not enough to manage your SAD symptoms. Seasonal affective disorder is a serious illness.
There is no shame in needing help to deal with this very common, and perfectly natural emotional response to getting less sunlight. If you notice a shift in your mood during these winter months try to take advantage of the services that UNH offers.