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Seasonal affective disorder: more than just the winter blues

Bryn Mawr Hospital December 12, 2014 General Wellness

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…right?

Although many people look forward to the excitement of the holiday season and spending time with friends and family, dreary weather and shorter days can make anyone susceptible to a case of the winter blues. After all—who wouldn’t miss the days of warmer weather and summer vacations?

“During the winter, it’s not uncommon to feel gloomy or experience cabin fever for a few days or a few weeks, especially after the holidays have passed,” says Lauren Napolitano, licensed psychologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “But for some people, these symptoms of depression start as early as autumn and last through spring. When the symptoms are that persistent and long-lasting, it’s no longer just ‘the blues.’”

Seasonal affective disorder, often referred to as SAD, is marked by common depression symptoms like weight gain, increased fatigue, withdrawal from friends and family, and a loss of interest in activities that can affect your productivity and enthusiasm. For those affected by SAD, these symptoms can last nearly five months.

As indicated by its name, one of the major contributors to SAD is the seasonal changes of cooler weather and shorter days. Less time spent outdoors and exposure to sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock and cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, both of which can contribute to feelings of depression. The change in season can also affect your body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Other risk factors for SAD include a family or personal history of depression or bipolar disorder, age, and gender. Young people and women are more likely to experience SAD symptoms.

Although SAD is a form of temporary depression, treatment options are still available.

“What’s important to remember is that SAD isn’t something you have to deal with. From speaking to a therapist for milder cases to light therapy or medications for more serious cases, there is a treatment option that’s right for you,” says Napolitano.

You can also take steps to help ward off these symptoms. Reserve time for exercise, brighten up your home or office with additional lighting, and spend time outside, regardless of the weather. Even on cold or cloudy days, time spent outside can help prevent SAD symptoms.

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of SAD, make an appointment with your physician to discuss your treatment options. Depending on your health history and the severity of your symptoms, they can help determine which option is right for you.

Struggling with the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder? Visit our website to learn more about Main Line Health's behavioral health services.