We blame winter for the patches of dry, flaky skin on our faces and hundreds of canceled flights, but the chilly season might also be the source of the generally gloomy cloud that’s been hanging over your head since mid-November.
The "winter blues,” or the phrase your mom used to describe your bad mood, is actually a real thing. Appropriately abbreviated SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a psychological condition that tends to occur in the winter months and is theorized to be linked to a decreased exposure to light during winter, according to Dr. Marc J. Romano, PsyD, Director of Medical Services at Delphi Behavioral Health.
Though it's often diagnosed as a Major Depressive Disorder, SAD has slightly different patterns. "Individuals with SAD tend to experience an increase in depressive symptoms in early fall or winter, and these symptoms begin to subside in early spring or early summer with full remission," says Dr. Romano.
So in short, you might start to feel down in the dumps during the cold months, but your mood might also tend to lift back up come, say, late March or early April. "In contrast, those with a Major Depressive Disorder may experience symptoms of depression at any time of the year," he continues.
According to Dr. Romano, eight of the common symptoms include feelings of sadness, decreased activity, increased sleep, weight gain, irritability, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, increased anxiety, and withdrawal from family and friends.
If more of your female friends claim to suffer from SAD than any of the men in your life, that isn't necessarily a coincidence. Dr. Romano says that women are four times more likely to deal with the disorder. It's also more common among those who have a close relative with a mental illness, depressive disorder, or alcohol use disorder. Regionally, it's more common in the northern regions of the U.S. compared to southern states. And while there's no set age range, he says it usually pops up between the ages of 18 and thirty.
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But there are ways to subside the sadness. "One of the most common approaches to treating SAD is Light Therapy," says Dr. Romano. "Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, involves exposure to a bright light first thing in the morning which triggers changes in the brain that influence mood."
This explains the surge of light therapy alarm clocks or lamps that have hit the market over the last few years.
"Medication is another treatment option for individuals suffering from SAD," notes Dr. Romano. "It is recommended that individuals begin taking the medication prior to the start of fall to ensure that the medication is in the person’s system before symptoms of SAD appear." Finally, psychotherapy is also used to teach individuals to cope with the disorder.
Like any disorder, if not treated properly, it has the potential to cause health issues like body aches, gastrointestinal issues, and hypertension, so if you think you might have SAD, it's vital to speak with a licensed psychologist or a medical professional.