The Changing of the Seasons and Seasonal Affective Disorder

The month of September is nearly past and Fall is almost upon us. Many regions of the country are already feeling the cooler temperatures, seeing colors start to change and having to adjust to a new schedule of dawn and dusk. For many, Fall is a welcome respite from the blazing days of summer, but for some it heralds a time of darkness out of doors as well as in the soul. Known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) the condition is a type of depression distinctly attached to changes in season.

SAD affects roughly five percent of the U.S. population. It can happen during any season, not only fall or winter, but the colder, darker months tend to affect more sufferers. In order to be diagnosed as having SAD a person must experience depressive symptoms related to seasonal changes for a minimum of two years. This means that the person undergoes depression during characteristic time frames but not at other times during the year.

A person with SAD usually experiences many of the classic signs of depression such as low mood, reduced enjoyment of formerly pleasurable activities, changes in appetite, changes in sleep, weariness and difficulty focusing or concentrating. In addition, the person with SAD might also find they have a stronger desire to eat carbohydrates, feel anxious, become isolated and have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Not all of these symptoms need be present, but often people with SAD experience a significant portion of the list.

SAD may strike during any season, but Fall and Winter are the most common. Some think that this is because the condition is predicated upon changes in the amount of light a person receives. It has been suggested that SAD is really a manifestation of changes in a person’s circadian rhythm. All of life on earth is wired to function in accord with a 24 hour clock containing periods of light and dark. When that clock changes, some bodies seem to be less able to adapt. Therefore, when the Fall and Winter seasons bring longer periods of darkness, the person feels a disharmony between nature’s clock and the body’s clock.
It is believed that sunlight contributes to the body’s release of serotonin and melatonin. These chemicals regulate mood and sleep. Thus light becomes a key factor in maintaining and synchronizing a person’s mood and sleep. Light triggers wakefulness and activity and night normally triggers restfulness. For people living in northern climates where the dark periods of each day are extended during Fall and Winter, it may well be that less sunshine means less of these important chemicals.

People can range widely in how affected they are by the seasonal changes in light. A person may feel mildly blue during Winter or they may experience major depression. If affected, a person can be greatly helped by keeping a regular schedule of waking and sleeping. Sitting beside a window at work and getting outside whenever possible also seem to help. Using broad spectrum light bulbs can brighten an area substantially enough to improve mood.

If none of these steps remedy the situation, it could be time to talk with a physician or counselor in order to learn about other possible treatments. No season of the year needs to be simply endured. With a little effort and perhaps some outside support, every part of the year can be enjoyed.

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