Seasonal Affective Disorder – More than the Holiday Blues

By: Kevin Zwiers, MBA

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression episodes related to seasonal variations of light. This is characterized by symptoms of depression during predominantly the winter months, which subside during the spring and summer months. SAD may affect over 3 million Americans every year. While it is commonly associated with winter, some individuals may experience a summer depression. The common age of onset is usually in their 30’s and unfortunately, 70-80% of those with SAD are women.

Some of the signs/symptoms of SAD could be:

  • SAD is more than just the “blahs”
  • People can experience real grief
  • Anxiety can be present
  • Extreme irritability to the point of violence
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Appetite for carbohydrates increases (sugary, starchy foods, alcohol)
  • Hypersomnia-excessive sleepiness during the day

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The most probable theory of SAD’s cause is found in Melatonin; a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. This hormone, commonly associated with causing symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. The reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter can disrupt your body’s internal clock. As a result, lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood can trigger depression.

Holiday Blues versus SAD

While not as serious, the holiday blues can be quite debilitating. You may be experiencing some of these same symptoms, but not consistently or as severely as those experiencing SAD. You may be able to subside your symptoms of Holiday Blues using Light Therapy, while those with Seasonal Affective Disorder would not feel the same effects. In Light Therapy, an exposure to light and vitamin D can directly impact your ability to fight off these feelings. Holiday Blues is considered to be more situational than physical. This means situations like the loss of a loved one or job loss can contribute to your symptoms, but individuals with SAD experience these feelings unprovoked and can cause them severe physical ailments. However, there can be a relationship between the two.

Common Causes of the Blues:

  • Past losses
  • Unresolved grief
  • Anticipating a significant loss
  • Disappointment from dwelling on the past
  • Dissatisfaction about “now”
  • Contrast between the image of holiday joy and the reality of one’s life
  • Increased isolation and loneliness
  • The increased pace and stress of the season
  • Extra demands on time, attention, energy, and finances
  • Unrealistic expectations

Beating the Holiday Blues is possible. Re-think how you or family members view the holidays and make sure you are setting realistic expectations. Putting less demand on yourself will ultimately help these relationships during this time. Ensure that negative thoughts, loss of a loved one, or decreased activity does not banish reasons for feeling unhappy. Spending time with supportive people, continuing to stay active, choosing healthy eating options, and setting time for yourself can reduce the stressors of the season.

As fall and winter are just around the corner, Silver Oaks Behavioral Hospital stands with our community as we treat those suffering with mental illness. As a community service, we offer free mental health assessments 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call us at (844) 580-5000 or walk-in anytime.