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Mental Health

The signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is very real and can have a profound affect on your professional and personal life. Here’s what you need to know about this sometimes-serious condition.

Although research is ongoing, SAD is believed to be related to a range of factors that include:

  • Less daylight — which could affect the amount of mood altering chemicals in your brain
  • Hormonal changes and disruptions
  • Drop in temperature may make you crave sleep more, disrupting circadian rhythms (your body’s natural 24-hour cycle)
  • Climate patterns — like barometric pressure and precipitation (rain, snow)
  • Psychological and personality traits
  • Disruption to neurotransmitters — chemical messengers that help regulate sleep, mood and appetite

Symptoms of SAD

SAD can be difficult to diagnose, since many of the symptoms are similar to those of other types of mental health and emotional issues. In general, symptoms of SAD recur for at least two consecutive winters and there is no other known reason for changes in your mood and behavior.

Look for things such as:

  • Change in appetite — wanting more carbohydrates and sweet or starchy foods
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Problems concentrating
  • Feeling irritable, anxious or in despair
  • Avoiding social situations and functions

Are you at risk?

SAD affects 2-5% of the general population and some are more at risk than others. Also note that 10-15% of us may experience a milder form of SAD; and even more of us may come down with the “winter blues.”

Risk factors include:

  • Age — may affect some children and teenagers, but it tends to begin in people over the age of 20, and starts to decline after age 50
  • Gender — more common in women than in men.
  • Geography — northern countries where the winter days are shorter
  • Living patterns — that affect your exposure to daylight (shift workers or those who work indoors and out of natural light)

The good news is that there are steps you can take to make things better.

What to do about SAD

Fortunately, effective treatment is available. Here’s how you can keep SAD at bay:

  • Whether it’s walking to the grocery store or shovelling the driveway, spend more time outdoors during daylight hours.
  • Redesign your interior by trimming tree branches that block light, keeping curtains open during the day, adding lamps and rearranging furniture so that you’re sitting near a window as often as possible.
  • Make outdoor exercise a daily part of your life. Walk your dog to the park or take a stroll around the block during your lunch hour. If, however, you prefer to exercise indoors, position yourself near a window for maximum sunlight exposure.
  • Pack your bags and take a winter vacation in a sunny destination for temporary relief of SAD symptoms.

Stick to a healthy diet to help resist cravings for carbs and sweets.

Other treatments include light therapy (sitting in front of a special light box for several minutes a day), counselling, therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes (like those just listed) to help relieve symptoms.

Search “Seasonal Affective Disorder” in Find Support for resources in your area.

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