Do the winter months get you down more than you think they should? If so, you might have seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal depression is a mood disorder that happens every year at the same time. A rare form of seasonal depression, known as “summer depression,” begins in late spring or early summer and ends in fall. In general, though, seasonal affective disorder starts in fall or winter and ends in spring or early summer.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
While we don’t know the exact causes of SAD, some scientists think that certain hormones made deep in the brain trigger attitude-related changes at certain times of year. Experts believe that SAD may be related to these hormonal changes. One theory is that less sunlight during fall and winter leads to the brain making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. Having too little serotonin may contribute to feelings of depression, along with symptoms of fatigue and weight gain.
SAD usually starts in young adulthood and is more common in women than men. Some people with SAD have mild symptoms and feel out of sorts or irritable. Others have worse symptoms that interfere with relationships and work.
Because the lack of enough daylight during wintertime is related to SAD, it’s seldom found in countries where there’s plenty of sunshine year-round.
What Are the Symptoms of SAD During Winter?
People with SAD have many of the normal warning signs of depression, including:
- Less energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Greater appetite
- Increased desire to be alone
- Greater need for sleep
- Weight gain
What Are the Symptoms of SAD During Summer?
- Less appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight loss
How Is SAD Diagnosed?
If you’ve been feeling depressed and have some of the above symptoms, see your doctor for an assessment. He or she will recommend the right form of treatment for you.
How Is Seasonal Depression Treated?
There are different treatments, depending on the severity of your symptoms. Also, if you have another type of depression or bipolar disorder, the treatment may be different.
Many doctors recommend that people with SAD get outside early in the morning to get more natural light. If this is impossible because of the dark winter months, antidepressant medications or light therapy (phototherapy) may help.
What Is Light Therapy for SAD?
Light therapy uses a full-spectrum bright light that is shined indirectly into your eyes. When you use this therapy, you sit about 2 feet away from a bright light — about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. The therapy starts with one 10- to 15-minute session per day. Then the times increase to 30 to 45 minutes a day, depending on your response. It’s important not to look directly at the light source of any light box for extended periods in order to minimize the possible risk of damage to your eyes.
Some people with SAD recover within days of using light therapy. Others take much longer. If the SAD symptoms don’t go away, your doctor may increase the light therapy sessions to twice daily. People who respond to light therapy are encouraged to continue it until they can be out in the sunshine again in the springtime.depression treated?
The first step to getting the right treatment is to visit a doctor or mental health professional. He or she can do an exam or lab tests to rule out other conditions that may have the same symptoms as depression. He or she can also tell if certain medications you are taking may be affecting your mood.
The doctor needs to get a complete history of symptoms. Tell the doctor when the symptoms started, how long they have lasted, how bad they are, whether they have occurred before, and if so, how they were treated. Tell the doctor if there is a history of depression in your family.
Medications called antidepressants can work well to treat depression. But they can take several weeks to work. Antidepressants can have side effects including:
- Nausea, feeling sick to your stomach
- Difficulty sleeping and nervousness
- Agitation or restlessness
- Sexual problems.
Most side effects lessen over time. Talk to your doctor about any side effects you may have.
It’s important to know that although antidepressants can be safe and effective for many people, they may present serious risks to some, especially children, teens, and young adults. A “black box”—the most serious type of warning that a prescription drug can have—has been added to the labels of antidepressant medications. These labels warn people that antidepressants may cause some people to have suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts, especially those who become agitated when they first start taking the medication and before it begins to work. Anyone taking antidepressants should be monitored closely, especially when they first start taking them.
For most people, though, the risks of untreated depression far outweigh those of antidepressant medications when they are used under a doctor’s supervision. Careful monitoring by a professional will also minimize any potential risks.
Several types of therapy can help treat depression. Some therapies are just as effective as medications for certain types of depression. Therapy helps by teaching new ways of thinking and behaving, and changing habits that may be contributing to the depression. Therapy can also help men understand and work through difficult situations or relationships that may be causing their depression or making it worse.
“I lost interest with the kids and doing things that we used to do. . . they’d ask their mother, ‘Why is Daddy not getting up and not wanting to do anything with us?’ ‘Did we do anything?’ They didn’t do anything to me. I just didn’t want to do anything.”
—Rene Ruballo, Police Officer
How can I help a loved one who is depressed?
If you know someone who has depression, first help him find a doctor or mental health professional and make an appointment.
- Offer him support, understanding, patience, and encouragement.
- Talk to him, and listen carefully.
- Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to his therapist or doctor.
- Invite him out for walks, outings and other activities. If he says no, keep trying, but don’t push him to take on too much too soon.
- Encourage him to report any concerns about medications to his health care provider.
- Ensure that he gets to his doctor’s appointments.
- Remind him that with time and treatment, the depression will lift.
How can I help myself if I am depressed?
As you continue treatment, gradually you will start to feel better. Remember that if you are taking an antidepressant, it may take several weeks for it to start working. Try to do things that you used to enjoy before you had depression. Go easy on yourself. Other things that may help include:
- See a professional as soon as possible. Research shows that getting treatment sooner rather than later can relieve symptoms quicker and reduce the length of time treatment is needed.
- Break up large tasks into small ones, and do what you can as you can. Don’t try to do too many things at once.
- Spend time with other people and talk to a friend or relative about your feelings.
- Do not make important decisions until you feel better. Discuss decisions with others who know you well.
Where can I go for help?
If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. You can also check the phone book for mental health professionals or check with your insurance carrier to find someone who participates in your plan. Hospital doctors can help in an emergency.
What if I or someone I know is in crisis?
Men with depression are at risk for suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, get help quickly.
- Call your doctor.
- Call 911 for emergency services.
- Go to the nearest hospital emergency room.
- Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889).
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