Many people have some physical reactions to seasonal changes and those may include sleeping earlier and longer during the cold and short days of winter. Such reactions are natural and normal. However, people who develop more severe reactions which then become problematic and may adversely affect various aspects of their lives are said to be suffering from a psychiatric cyclical mood disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder is most closely associated with light verses darkness rather than cold verses heat. Therefore, people may suffer the symptoms of this disorder even during seasons other than winter in geographic locations where there are many days with heavy cloud covers which block the sun.
Also known as winter depression or winter blues, seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that includes feelings of sluggishness and lack of energy, hopelessness, exhaustion and fatigue, withdrawal and loss of interest, distraction and inability to concentrate, heightened anxiety and deep sadness that are all evoked during the fall and winter of every year. Sufferers of the seasonal disorders tend to sleep more than they do during other parts of the year and they struggle with unusually powerful cravings for high carbohydrate foods such as sweets and starches and thus find themselves gaining weight.
Some people experience seasonal mood changes during the summer months but such conditions are called reversed seasonal affective disorders and their symptoms are: insomnia, irritability, anxiety, agitation, increased sex drive, reduced appetite and, therefore, weight loss.
Causes of the Seasonal Affective Disorder
The exact cause or causes of the seasonal affective disorder are not known but most fingers are pointed at genetics and body chemicals as well as various physiological systems. The accused offenders include the circadian rhythm (the physiological process that regulates the body’s internal clock); melatonin (a natural sleep related hormone); and serotonin (a neurotransmitter or a naturally occurring brain chemical affecting moods).
Treating the Seasonal Affective Disorder
Although the seasonal affective disorder comes and goes right along with the seasons, there is no need to wait for nature as the medical field has developed a good number of effective treatments. Among such treatments for winter-based seasonal affective disorder are various types of light therapies to mimic summertime sunlight; antidepressant drugs to relieve some of the more severe symptoms of depression; the introduction of ionized air; psychotherapy (cognitive/behavioral and occupational therapies) to help cope as well as redirect negative thoughts and behavior; and the intake of a hormone called melatonin.
Statistics about the Seasonal Affective Disorder
Studies have shown time and time again that the incidents of seasonal affective disorders are most prevalent in regions of higher latitudes where the dark winter days are much longer. In the United States, for instance, only approximately 1.5% of the population in the State of Florida suffers from the disorder while that surpasses 9% in the northern states such as Washington, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the New England states. Finland and other Nordic countries, which are located at higher latitudes, have an estimated 10% or more of their population suffering from the disorder.
Some studies report that between 6% and 35% of those who suffer from the seasonal affective disorder display symptoms which are so serious that they may require hospitalization. These same studies also indicate that many SAD patients are at high risks of suicide attempts.
A mild form of SAD is called subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder (SSAD) and it is believed that about 14.5% of the United States population is afflicted with it although many may never be officially diagnosed.