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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder: How to Brighten Cold, Dark Days

Do you feel extra down during the cold, dark winter months? You may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition is often mistaken for the "holiday blues," but it's a lot more complex than that and can really limit your quality of life during the winter. That's why it's so important to recognize the signs and see a doctor for help.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD is a type of depression. Not everyone with this condition will have the same symptoms, but it's worth noting that they typically diminish in the spring. Visit your doctor for diagnosis and treatment if you experience any combination of the following:

  • Feeling sad, anxious, empty, guilty, worthless, or helpless.
  • Irritability or restlessness.
  • Hopelessness or pessimism.
  • Feeling overly fatigued or not having energy.
  • Losing interest in activities you once liked.
  • Experiencing weight changes.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide.

These symptoms can be tough to deal with. You may feel like a cloud is hanging over your life and find yourself making plans and breaking them because you just can't motivate yourself. Remember, we all need help from time to time, and there's no shame in asking for it. Admitting you have a problem and seeing a doctor is actually an act of bravery and strength.

Causes of SAD

Sometimes a mild case of the winter blues is simply linked to the holidays or not being fond of the cold. More serious depression in the form of SAD can be triggered by winter itself. Scientists don't completely understand the condition, but shorter days and reduced sunlight do play a role in disrupting your body's inner clock, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports.

In normal circumstances, your brain sends signals to your body to help keep you awake during the day, and then releases a chemical called melatonin to help you sleep at night. Changes to the length of daylight can disrupt these natural functions. In addition, SAD is more prevalent in the northern states of the United States and less common in the southern states; in Florida, only about 1 percent of the population experiences SAD.

Possible Treatments

If you think you have SAD, there's hope. Your doctor will help you decide which treatments will reduce the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. One common treatment is light therapy. The therapy light is brighter than indoor lighting, and you'll sit in front of it every morning for 30 minutes or more. After a few weeks, up to 70 percent of patients notice improvement, according to NIH data.

Sometimes antidepressants are prescribed along with light therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also helpful because it focuses on identifying self-defeating thoughts and teaching new behaviors to improve mood. These can be as simple as going out with friends or taking a walk outside.

If you think you may be experiencing SAD this winter, make an appointment with your doctor. Therapies can help a high percentage of people, and there's no reason you should suffer in silence during the year's darker months.

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