A little over two years ago, Clinical Psychology Science released a study that challenged the idea that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) exists as a legitimate form of depression. SAD has been classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1987, and refers to depression that is seasonal in nature.
The school of thought has traditionally linked the changing seasons, latitude, and decrease in exposure to sunlight to traditional symptoms of depression, including:
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Low energy
- Problems sleeping
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling worthless
The data from this study revealed that depression had little to do with light, latitude, or the seasons, suggesting that Seasonal Affective Disorder has either been mischaracterized or invented altogether.
That’s all well and good for the study, but what about the people who have routinely experienced the textbook diagnoses of SAD since its initial inclusion in the DSM more than 30 years ago?
For as much as we know about the human mind, we learn more with every passing year. Science is often messy, and the results yielded from different studies can be framed by human biases.
You’d be hard pressed to convince a psychologist who has treated a patient for Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), more commonly known as MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder), that the disorder isn’t real, yet the existence of DID remains one of the most controversial among mental health professionals.
Some claim diagnoses of DID coincide too neatly with the release of popular movies or books, suggesting these cases are psychosomatic. Others swear it exists and provide specific ways to identify it. In short, there is no clean answer that will satisfy everyone.
So where does that leave us on Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Whether or not Seasonal Affective Disorder is a legitimate form of depression is immaterial to the symptoms experienced by those who suffer from it each year. And it should be noted that SAD is not synonymous with “the winter blues”—SAD is a subtype of depression, meaning the diagnosis doesn’t apply unless the person in question also has major depression.
Depression in any form, seasonal or otherwise, can have a dramatic impact on a person. If you’re experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, here are some ways to find relief.
- Try a light therapy box. One of the common elements associated with SAD is the dwindling access to natural sunlight. Light therapy boxes mimic the sun in terms of light output, making them significantly stronger than regular bulbs. Sit with your light box for around 30 minutes a day to stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms. The intention is to suppress the natural release of melatonin.
- Move more. Physical activity can alleviate the symptoms of other forms of depression. If you can, exercise outside to get as much exposure to the sun as possible. If it’s slick with ice or snow outside, choose a treadmill that’s close to the window. Since weight gain is a hallmark symptom of SAD and depression, exercising can also help prevent a dramatic weight gain.
- Stick to a schedule. Trouble sleeping and getting up is another symptom of SAD. Try to keep your schedule regular so that your exposure to the sun and other light sources remains consistent.
- Eat at regular intervals. Like with depression, people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder typically get the munchies, and crave sugary foods. Stock up on healthy options that can also satisfy your sweet tooth, such as apples or grapes.
- Talk to a doctor. Admitting you’re not feeling 100% is not a weakness. Ultimately, mental or mood disorders are like any other medical condition. If you have high blood pressure, you take medicine to help keep it level. If you have asthma, you rely on an inhaler to keep your lungs functioning properly. If the chemicals in your brain are out of whack, embrace the fact that a doctor and a prescription can provide relief.
At the end of the day, no one wants to feel sad, and regardless of the fact that the medical community isn’t at a consensus about what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, that doesn’t make them any less real to those who endure them.
If you find you’re fatigued, plagued by feelings of hopelessness, having trouble sleeping, withdrawing socially, or any of the classic symptoms associated with SAD, let the staff at Advanced Family Medicine know. We’re here to listen and to help.