Seasonal Affective Disorder: Understanding how the weather affects our mood
Ever felt angrier than usual when the temperature soars? Or perhaps gloomy when the sky was pouring down? There are countless articles available in the research field which point toward a strong role of the weather in influencing our mood. Heat is directly linked to increased aggression, lack of sunshine has been linked to increased sadness and depression whereas spring witnesses more deeds of kindness. One example of the direct link between weather and mood is Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) refers to symptoms of depression, mania or hypomania (with symptoms of depression being the most common) that occur due to changes in season, with the symptoms surfacing around the same time every year. The DSM-V does not include SAD as a separate diagnosis but as an identifying specifier (i.e., With Seasonal Pattern) for recurrent episodes of Major Depression and/or Bipolar Disorder. SAD, however, is identified as a condition requiring immediate mental health attention by all major psychological associations around the world. The condition is also known as seasonal depression (American Psychiatric Association).
Most commonly, SAD symptoms are experienced during winter months when the sunshine is scarce and therefore, is a seasonal disorder that is experienced by millions in cold countries. Research, however, suggests that even in lower altitude countries like India, SAD is a reality (Srivastava & Sharma, 1998). Sad is more than just “winter blues”. It is a serious mental health issue which requires professional help. More common among women than men and among the youth, symptoms of SAD last for almost 40 percent of the entire year.
Causes, & Symptoms
As evident, the occurrence of the symptoms for this disorder are directly linked to the lack of sunshine & prevalence of dull lighting days. While there are several theories which attempt to explain the occurrence of SAD, the most common theory posits that the absence of sunlight interferes with the production of the hormone, serotonin, in the brain, which is responsible for mood regulation. Overproduction of melatonin, which is responsible for sleep, during days of poor sunshine, is also held responsible for experiencing SAD, since excess melatonin leads to over sleepiness, fatigue & lethargy. This & the lack of sunshine also interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm, thereby hampering the internal biological clock and thus, further contributing to the occurrence of the disorder.
Since Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to depressive symptoms as Vitamin D plays an important role in serotonin regulation, and with sunshine playing a very crucial role in Vitamin D production, lack of sunshine during monsoon and winter months is seen as another crucial reason for the rise of this condition during the said months.
The most common signs and symptoms of SAD, irrespective of the season in which it strikes, includes, (similar to depression):
• Feeling sad most of the day
• Lack of interest in daily activities
• Lethargy & fatigue
• Lack of energy, tiredness
• Difficulties with sleep, (particularly oversleeping)
• Disturbed appetite / serious fluctuations with weight (e.g., craving for high carb food)
• Difficulty concentrating
• Feelings of worthlessness, guilt
• Thoughts of physical self-harm / suicide (Source: Mayo Clinic)
Since the disorder is triggered largely due to the scarcity of sunlight, the most common and effective treatment for SAD is Phototherapy, also known as light therapy. Phototherapy has been shown to be effective in almost 80 percent of SAD cases. It involves exposure to full spectrum bright light, about 20 times brighter than an ordinary room lighting. Therefore, it is extremely important that the therapy is availed of under the supervision of a trained professional.
Much like any other mood disorder, pharmacology and psychotherapy are two other popular treatment approaches for seasonal depression which show effective results. In psychotherapy, cognitive & behavioural approaches are the most commonly used. Anti-depressants and vitamin-D supplements are the most commonly prescribed pharmacological drugs for the symptoms.
Precautions to take
Foggy winter months with little or no sunshine are around the corner, particularly for those of us living in North India & hilly regions, elsewhere. The chances of developing symptoms of SAD are likely to increase. Some simple steps can keep these seasonal symptoms of depression away –
• Go out every day, even when it’s not too sunny; any amount of daylight is good.
• Exercise on a regular basis as exercising boosts the hormone levels, thereby keeping away depression and related symptoms.
• Eat healthy and a well-balanced diet.
• Stay connected with friends and family.
So, these winters, bid adieu to the gloominess and stay on top of your emotions!