Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a diagnosis that has affected millions of Americans each year. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), SAD was grouped in with other mood disorders and is now considered a seasonal pattern of Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. Often, this disorder is overlooked as many attribute the signs and symptoms of SAD to seemingly normal “winter blues” that occur during times of cold and inclement weather. While it is normal to feel glum or disappointed about the effect that the weather can have on your daily routine, prolonged feelings of sadness during certain times of the year may mean that treatment is warranted. Although less common than the depressive symptoms associated with SAD, some may experience upward mood swings that accompany restlessness, increased energy, and/or a decreased need for sleep. Consider the following signs and symptoms that typically coincide with a seasonal pattern in order to determine if additional help may be needed for you or someone you know who appears to be suffering from SAD:
Feelings of sadness similar to those experienced with traditional depression. If you are feeling sad for more days than not for approximately 2 weeks at the same time of the year each year, and this sadness is not brought on by any psychosocial stressor (e.g., anniversary of the death of a loved one), this is a sign that your mood is likely an abnormal reaction to the change in season. This sadness can manifest in different ways such as consistently oversleeping, withdrawing from friends or family, and/or anhedonia (no longer enjoying activities that you typically find fun or rewarding).
Change in appetite. When accompanied by prolonged feelings of sadness with a seasonal pattern, a significant increase or decrease in appetite may be an indication that a SAD diagnosis is warranted. Physical signs of change in appetite typically include a weight loss or gain of more than 5 percent of your body weight in a month’s time. While hearty winter menus and exercise routines inhibited by weather can lead to fluctuations in weight, a consistent and significant increase or decrease in appetite is a red flag of a possible mood disorder, including SAD.
Changes in sleep patterns. Both hypersomnia (sleeping more) and insomnia (difficulty initiating and/or maintaining sleep) are signs of SAD. While some fluctuations in sleep and sleeping patterns are normal, a continual and consistent change in sleep pattern should be noted as a likely symptom of a larger problem.
Changes in energy level. Lethargy and psychomotor retardation (being physically slowed down) can be symptoms of a mood disorder. Others may experience restlessness and agitation. Any significant change in energy level that is not explained by another medical condition or by a lack of sleep can be an indication of SAD or a related mood disorder such.
Difficulty concentrating. A noteworthy change in the ability to concentrate, focus, and/or make decisions that occurs daily is cause for concern.
Thoughts of death or suicide. Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness may lead to thoughts of suicide. Such thoughts, with or without a suicide attempt, warrant immediate intervention and treatment.
Because SAD is different from other types of depression in that the symptoms have a temporal association with the change in season, and because the symptoms are typically accompanied by increased periods of darkness related to the winter months, light therapy is often helpful in treating this disorder. Light therapy can include increased exposure to sunlight and artificial light boxes or lamps designed specifically to emit light for treatment of SAD. Physical exercise proves helpful for many who experience depressive symptoms of the disorder, and psychotherapy to treat both cognitive and behavioral components of the disorder are often successful means of treatment as well. When light therapy and/or psychotherapy are ineffective, psychotropic medication, such as an anti-depressant, is often helpful in decreasing the symptoms until they remit.
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