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Tis the Season for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The weather is getting colder and much longer in most parts of the country.  Although South Floridians don’t typically fall victim to this disorder, all of these weather changes and the loss of so much daylight leads to up to half a million people across the US suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

What Causes This Disorder?

There are a few theories about why people get seasonal affective disorder.  The most popular theory is that the changes in sunlight over the course of the year have an effect on the circadian rhythms in the body.  This change can induce depression.  Other theories include the Serotonin Theory that says that patterns of sunlight can affect the levels of serotonin in the body which is a neurotransmitter that is linked to depression.  Another theory is the Melatonin Theory which posits that the levels of melatonin in the body increase during the winter and cause depression.

Before the winter months start getting too dark, you can guard yourself against seasonal affective disorder by getting outside as much as possible.  Even when the days are cloudy some natural light is going to soak into your body. Take a walk or sit on a bench.  It can help to make your indoor environments a little sunnier as well.  Make sure to open the blinds or curtains in your home or office.  Sit closer to the windows so that you can benefit from the natural light.  And get a little exercise.  Even pacing back and forth in your office will help, but going for a walk around the block would be even better for warding off seasonal affective disorder.

The Symptoms of SAD

Seasonal affective disorder can cause people to experience feelings of lethargy and depression. This disorder can cause concentration difficulties, increased appetite resulting in weight gain, and an increased desire to be alone.  Seasonal affective disorder can cause disruptions to professional performance, personal relationships, and the sufferer’s general well-being.  Most people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder start to feel its effects in the fall.  They usually start to feel quite a bit better when spring starts and the days are getting a bit lighter.

Symptoms Vary Tremendously

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder vary quite a lot from person to person.  Very few people are going to experience all of the symptoms that are possible.  The major symptom of seasonal affective disorder is depression. Other symptoms include feelings of fatigue or apathy, irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and weight gain.  Seasonal affective disorder can sometimes cause the conflicting symptoms of insomnia and weight loss.  Doctors can sometimes misdiagnose seasonal affective disorder because of its similarities to the symptoms of traditional depression, but generally, experiencing the symptoms seasonally for two consecutive years indicates seasonal affective disorder.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?

There are several common treatments for dealing with seasonal affective disorder.  The most commonly heard about treatment is light therapy.  In light therapy which is sometimes called phototherapy, the patient sits near a specific kind of light therapy box that exposed his or her to bright light that is meant to mimic sunlight.  This artificial outdoor light exposure has been shown to cause changes in the chemicals in the brain that are linked to mood.  Light therapy is most effective when it is started at the beginning of the fall and continued through the winter season and into the beginning of spring.

Psychoterapy

Traditional psychotherapy is also a prescribed treatment for seasonal affective disorder.  Psychotherapy that is used in this kind of treatment can help a sufferer learn ways of coping with seasonal affective disorder and ways of managing the stress that can sometimes make the symptoms worse. Psychotherapy can also help the sufferer identify and manage negative thoughts and behaviors that can exacerbate symptoms as well.

 Medication

Medications are also an option for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder.  When symptoms are at their most severe, patients can receive some relief from antidepressants. It is possible that your doctor will recommend starting to take an antidepressant before symptoms present so that the medications can begin to work even before you start to feel the symptoms.  This is a proactive approach to treatment and is not used by all medical professionals.  Also, antidepressants can take a few weeks before they start to really have an effect.  The proactive approach gives patients the opportunity to figure out what kinds of side effects they are going to have and change medications if that is needed.

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