Seasonal affective disorder is more than the winter blues

Seasonal affective disorder is like a holiday guest who has overstayed their welcome, Huntsville resident Katie Hall said with a laugh.

I always joke that my normal depression invites seasonal depression to come in for a few months and mess up the house, Hall said.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has similar symptoms to major depressive disorder, but only occurs at certain times of the year, typically around fall and winter, according to Dr. Megan Hays. University of Alabama, Birminghams Heersink School of Medicine.

Hays noted the difference between SAD and the winter blues, which occurs when the stressors of the holiday season and shorter daylight hours can impair mood. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) describes SAD as significant changes in your mood and behavior as the seasons change.

SAD can also happen when other seasons change, but according to the NIH, it’s more common in the winter.

Some of the more troubling symptoms of SAD include intense feelings of hopelessness, sleep disturbances and suicidal thoughts, Hays said.

Hall struggles with depression year-round, but during the winter months, she said her symptoms included intense feelings of loneliness and extreme fatigue.

“I’m very tired all day no matter what I do, no matter how much sleep I get or how much caffeine I get,” Hall said. He also experiences muscle pain and tension.

Huntsville resident Melody Young said she only experiences depression during the winter months and that she doesn’t hate life in the warmer seasons.

I love my life. I love my hobbies. I love my family. I love my friends. Why am I sad sometimes? Young wondered for more than a decade until he spoke with the doctor who diagnosed him with SAD several years ago.

Other symptoms include memory or concentration problems and changes in appetite or weight, according to the NIH. Researchers are still investigating the cause of SAD. There are links to a lack of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood, and vitamin D, both of which are caused by reduced sun exposure.

A lot of research points to light because light is actually the primary regulator of our body’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm, Hays said.

Treatment for SAD may include antidepressants and light therapy. Hays said light, or light therapy, is as simple as spending more time outside or using a light box with at least 10,000 lux. Hall and Young go outside and use light boxes in their home and workplace and notice mood improvements.

Hall said she supplements with vitamin D, incorporates physical activity into her daily routine and sees a therapist.

I’m a huge advocate for therapy, Hall said. I wish everyone in the world had a therapist because it can only really help.

Young said tracking her symptoms throughout the year is a useful long-term project, as is seeing a doctor and getting proper treatment.

It’s key to trust your gut and know that you need to listen to the little cues your body or mind might be telling you, Young said.

Hays said being social and connecting with friends and family can help with SAD.

We know that even if you don’t feel like it, having emotional support and being around others can help combat feelings of isolation, Hays said.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is experiencing a crisis, call 988 or text HOME to 741741 to speak or text someone from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. More information is available at 988lifeline.org and CrisisTextLine.org.

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