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Feeling Down? You May Have Seasonal Affective Disorder

The stress of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of millions of people. People are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression in part because of less social interaction and worries over financial hardship or the health of their loved ones. If you’ve been feeling especially anxious or down this time of year, there’s another possible explanation worth considering – you may have seasonal affective disorder.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern. It’s suspected that shorter days and less daylight in the fall and winter months trigger a chemical change in the brain that leads to symptoms of depression. In rare cases, some people develop SAD during the late spring or early summer. If you have episodes of depression that recur at the same time every year (not year-round), you may have SAD.

Like many mental health issues, some people question the legitimacy of seasonal depression. However, seasonal depression is a very real, diagnosable and treatable illness. It impacts approximately three percent of Americans and Canadians each year, or over 10 million people.

The process of diagnosing mental illness is not like diagnosing diabetes or cancer. Diagnosis of a mental illness is a multi-step process that may include more than one healthcare provider, often starting with your primary care physician. A diagnosis alone won’t make someone better, but is a step in the right direction of getting the necessary care to address and manage symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

The signs and symptoms of SAD include those associated with major depression, along with some specific symptoms that differ for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. Not every person with SAD will experience all of the symptoms below, but they will experience at least several of them.

Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Specific symptoms for winter-pattern SAD may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Specific symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include:

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

Steps to Address SAD

The good news is there’s a lot you can do if you experience symptoms associated with SAD. These suggestions may sound simple, yet they can be effective:

  • Exercise – even a short walk outside can be beneficial.
  • Socialize with friends and family (in a way that’s safe given COVID-19 limitations).
  • Maintain daily routines, including a regular bedtime.
  • Eat healthy, nutritious foods.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member.
  • Maximize natural light in your house in the fall and winter months by opening blinds.
  • Practice meditation, relaxation and mindfulness.

If your symptoms feel serious and last more than two weeks, reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional. Speaking with a mental health professional or therapist can help identify negative thought patterns, coping strategies and ways to improve self-care. Teletherapy is an option if you are not comfortable meeting in person.

Your doctor may recommend an antidepressant to treat SAD. The combination of medication and talk therapy has been associated with significantly higher rates of improvement in more severe, chronic and complex presentations of depression.

Many LIUNA health and welfare funds cover treatment for mental health illnesses. We recommend reaching out to your local health and welfare fund or speaking with your insurance carrier to learn more about the mental health benefits available to you and your family.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]

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