What is seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder characterised by symptoms that occur at the same time each year, usually during the darker, shorter days of autumn and winter. It is not uncommon for people to experience seasonal fluctuations in moods. You may have noticed how a grey, rainy day makes you feel gloomy and tired, while a sunny day can leave you feeling cheerful and energised.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The symptoms of SAD occur cyclically with a return of symptoms each year during the winter months. Symptoms can include:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sleep
  • Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Interpersonal difficulties (especially rejection sensitivity)
  • A heavy, leaden feeling in the arms or legs

What causes seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is believed to be caused by a disturbance in the circadian rhythms of the body. Sunlight entering through the eyes influences this rhythm.

When it’s dark, the pineal gland produces a substance called melatonin. Light entering the eyes at dawn shuts off the production of melatonin.

During the shorter days of winter, when people may rise before dawn or not leave their offices until after sunset, these normal rhythms may become disrupted, producing symptoms of SAD.

There is also evidence linking SAD to a reduced amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin is the feel-good substance that is increased by antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

What is light therapy, and how does it work?

Seasonal affective therapy responds well to treatment. The most commonly used treatments for SAD include light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy.

Light therapy using a device that gives off bright, white light is considered the best form of treatment for SAD at this time. In autumn 1998, a group of 13 Canadian specialists issued a set of professional consensus guidelines for the treatment of SAD. Among their conclusions:

  • The starting “dose” for light therapy using a fluorescent lightbox is 10,000 lux for 30 minutes per day. (Alternatively, lightboxes emitting 2,500 lux require two hours of exposure per day.)
  • Light therapy should be started in the early morning, upon awakening, to maximise treatment response.
  • Response to light therapy often occurs within one week, but some patients may require up to four weeks to show a response.
  • Common side effects of light therapy include headache, eyestrain, nausea, and agitation, but these effects are generally mild and transient or disappear with reducing the dose.

Seasonal affective disorder treatment.

Seasonal mood shifts are common, but sometimes seasonal depression may represent a serious condition that can impact your well-being and ability to function normally. If you suspect that what you are feeling might be seasonal affective disorder (SAD), talk to your doctor to explore treatment options that will work for you.

How does seasonal affective disorder affect addiction?

Since seasonal affective disorder has such a profound impact on mental health, it can also inflame addiction. Many people who have been diagnosed with SAD find themselves using drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with their symptoms. Additionally, if someone is already struggling with addiction, they may find that their substance abuse spikes during the time of year that triggers their SAD.

Because the symptoms of SAD and addiction are closely linked in many ways, it can be difficult to get to the root of the problem. If you or someone you know is exhibiting any of the signs of SAD, it’s crucial to seek help as soon as possible. At The Recovery Lodge, we can evaluate your symptoms and determine whether you’re suffering from SAD, major depression or another mental health condition.

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