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When the Winter Gets You Down: 5 Things to Know about SAD

It’s natural to feel a bit sad when the seasons change from summer to fall. The days get shorter and the temperatures drop, leaving you nostalgic for long summer days in the warmth of the sun.

It’s also natural to have a bad day or a bad week here and there. But, for some people, it’s not just a bad day or feeling reminiscent about the summer – it could be seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

“There's not really one answer about why seasonal affective disorder affects certain people. But what is certain is it effects a percentage of our population,” said Aaron Sutton, a behavioral health consultant and licensed clinical social worker at Abington-Jefferson Health.

SAD is a type of depression triggered or related to changes in seasons, beginning and ending at about the same time every year. Think you might be dealing with something more than the winter blues? Here are five things to know about SAD:

1. Sunlight plays a role.

As the seasons transition from summer to fall to winter, our days get shorter and we see less sunlight per day.

“What we believe happens is that when the amount of sunlight decreases, it kind of messes with our biological clock,” Sutton said. Your biological clock, which is also known as your circadian rhythm, controls your sleep-wake cycle and is regulated by light exposure.

Sunlight also impacts your serotonin levels.

“The decrease in sunlight can decrease levels of serotonin, which can in turn trigger these symptoms of depression,” Sutton explained. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that affects mood.

2. Symptoms are physical and emotional.

Seasonal affective disorder is more commonly associated with its emotional depressive symptoms, but some of the symptoms are physical as well.

“You may experience a larger appetite than usual and crave foods that are very starchy or sweet,” Sutton said. This larger appetite, he said, can also lead to weight gain.

“Some people experience feeling as if their extremities are being weighed down,” he said. Some people who are dealing with SAD report experiencing a heavy or leaden feeling in their arms or legs.

And then there are the symptoms similar to full-blown depression.

“Those experiencing SAD can have difficulty with their relationships, can be cranky or irritable, have feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and have trouble focusing and remembering details,” Sutton said. Other symptoms may include feeling tired, having low energy, oversleeping and losing interest in usual activities.

3. It’s different than a bad day.

“It’s very natural to have a bad day. It’s even natural to have a bad week. We go through the passing of loved ones; bad days at work. But it’s when these feelings really start to affect your daily life you should be more concerned,” Sutton stated.

“If you have difficulty going to work or maintaining relationships, and you see that pattern come on every fall or winter, you may want to reach out for help,” he said.

4. Your doctor can help.

“If you believe symptoms of SAD are impacting your ability to function and you think you're having these feelings during the seasonal transition months, healthcare providers can do a more-detailed screening,” Sutton said. The evaluation typically includes a physical exam, lab tests and a psychological evaluation.

Your healthcare provider can also help you determine if you’re struggling with SAD or another disorder, such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Knowing exactly what you’re dealing with will determine how to best treat and cope with it.

5. There are ways to cope with and treat SAD.

Once it’s determined that you are in fact dealing with SAD, your doctor or therapist will discuss ways you can cope or manage your symptoms, Sutton said.

“First, you’ll work on behavioral strategies, such as going outside and exercising, setting an alarm clock that goes off before the sun rises…those are the first steps,” he said.

Then, your doctor may talk about light therapy – a therapy that exposes you to bright light, mimicking the natural outdoor light.

The possibility of medication is a last resort.

“There are some medications that work very well for depression. I always encourage people to talk to a healthcare professional. People fear the first thing we’re going to do is prescribe medication, but we’re not. We’re going to discuss all of the options first,” Sutton said.

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