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Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

Updated on April 24, 2016

Seasonal anxiety disorder (SAD) is a common term for seasonal affective disorder or winter blues. It is a mood condition commonly causing depression, anxiety and sleep disruption. It usually begins in late autumn or early winter and is resolved by summer. There is also a condition known as summer seasonal affective disorder or summer blues which occurs much less often than SAD and has an onset in late spring or early summer and resolves by winter. This article will discuss the winter induced seasonal disorder.

We can see SAD presenting in varying degrees of severity from a mild form to a severe and more debilitating form with a firm diagnosis of depression. The diagnosis is now recognized as form of mental illness as it is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

SAD most typically affects people throughout the winter.
SAD most typically affects people throughout the winter. | Source

Who Suffers from Seasonal Anxiety Disorder?

Anyone can suffer with seasonal anxiety disorder but these factors have been noted.

  • It is more commonly first diagnosed in early adult years but can affect any age
  • Those with a genetic link to a SAD sufferer may have more of a tendency to develop the condition
  • The onset of the disorder is less likely from middle age onwards
  • Those living in northern countries are more at risk than those living near the equator.
  • It would be rare for children to get SAD
  • More women than men appear to suffer.

Symptoms of Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

These are some of the symptoms which would typically begin around September to November.

  • Depression
  • Increased anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue or less energy
  • Negative thoughts
  • Lack of emotion, feeling numb
  • Disturbed sleep pattern
  • Over eating
  • Lack of interest in sex
  • Difficulty concentrating

Gradually one would loose these symptoms in the spring months.

Winter days have much less sunlight.
Winter days have much less sunlight. | Source

What Causes Seasonal Anxiety Disorder?

The definitive cause of SAD is actually unknown and there is much research still ongoing but the following are thought to be involved.

Reduced Light Theory

This is thought to be the primary cause of SAD. There is less natural light in the winter. When light travels through the eyes, it then carries on through to the part of the brain that controls the internal Circadian rhythms or biological clock of a person. Dependant upon how sensitive this area is to the varying levels of light, a person could encounter a shift or change in such things as their sleep patterns, hormone levels, mental alertness and activity. Serotonin levels are linked to depression and bright light increases levels of serotonin.

Melatonin Levels

The pineal gland secretes the hormone melatonin which is directly involved with our sleep/wake cycle and influenced by light levels. As darkness falls the pineal gland produces more melatonin and prompts us to feel sleepy but as we sleep the secretion in melatonin declines slowly with the approaching dawn and prepares us to become awake. If melatonin doesn’t decrease sufficiently it would make us feel very tired, lethargic or have difficulty waking in the mornings. People who suffer with SAD have been found to have something called delayed dim-light melatonin onset (DLMO). In these patients it is suggested that as darkness comes there is a delay in the increase of melatonin secretion and feeling sleepy falls behind by a couple of hours or so.

Vitamin D

If we don’t get enough sun in our lives we are at risk of not producing enough vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency can produce symptoms such as lethargy, sleep disturbance and depression. Usually and naturally we are able to have sufficient vitamin D just by exposing ourselves to enough sunlight throughout the year ready for when winter comes. A simple lab test can show if a person is deficient in vitamin D. It has been shown that a supplement of Vitamin D has helped to lessen the intensity of symptoms encountered by a SAD sufferer.

Winter Moods - A Depressing Time?

There are many working on the theories of why people get SAD but although this is not a recognized theory, I would like to point out the following that may prompt or antagonize this condition.It is recognized that people usually suffer more with the winter related seasonal anxiety disorder than that of the summer variety. All of the above causes seem very legitimate but let’s look at what is happening at that time of the year.

  • The annual summer holiday that you had been looking forward to for so long has passed

  • Outdoor pursuits you could do in summer evening sunlight are often put to bed for winter

  • Those evening barbecues and warm air, moonlit glasses of wine are now put on hold over winter

  • The days are shorter in winter and we seem to have less time to fit things into our daily schedule

  • Children are under your feet more as their playtime outdoors becomes more limited

  • Christmas is approaching and we may find it a financially difficult time

  • Family gatherings, meals and preparations for Christmas can be very stressful

  • Christmas is over and we are often left with a feeling of anti climax

  • Fuel bills are higher in winter, again producing more financial stress

  • We feel much colder

  • We tend to eat more and especially comfort foods during the winter. Weight gain can be depressing to some

Tips for The Winter Blues

Source

Treatment for Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

Light Therapy

This is a popular form of treatment that results with a good measure of success if used correctly. You can’t just use any old bright light and must buy the correct form of light or light-box for it to be affective. Exposure to light that is brighter than your indoor light but less light than natural sunlight is used in the form of a lamp. The most effective results are found if used early in the morning upon awakening, usually for at least 30 minutes but you should seek professional advice on timing and duration issues. Within several weeks of use you should expect to see a lessening of symptoms. Side effects have been noted with light therapy such as headaches, eyestrain and nausea.

Melatonin and Vitamin D Supplement

Low dose melatonin taken nightly may help this disorder. Ask to have your vitamin D levels checked as a supplement can be given. Alternatively make sure you eat foods rich in vitamin D such as oily fish such as mackerel, herrings and sardines. Eggs are a good source too. You can of course buy cod liver oil to take each day as a supplement.


SSRI Antidepressants

Specific antidepressants may be used but you should discuss with your doctor the effects these may have on your melatonin levels as some antidepressants can interfere with those levels. Fluoxetine and paroxetine are popular medications for this disorder.

Therapy or Counselling

Therapy or counseling can help us identify mood changes and how to deal with the symptoms that arise.

Sunlight

Try to get as much natural sunlight as you can all the year round. Take off those sunglasses now and again to let natural light pass through your eyes!

Seeking Help

If you feel you have suffered distinct mood changes and some of the symptoms above around the time of the months stated, you should see your doctor to receive a firm diagnosis. Most doctors would want you to have suffered at least two consecutive years to indicate the possibility of SAD. With the right therapy there is hope that the disorder can be corrected. Be aware also that existing mental health problems such as bipolar disorder can be affected by seasonal anxiety disorder.

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    • krsharp05 profile image

      krsharp05 5 years ago from 18th and Vine

      meloncauli, I've never considered the importance of vitamin D and being lethargic but it makes a lot of sense. This is very descriptive and well put together. Great job. -K

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      Fascinating and well presented information. I imagine SAD is much more prevalent than most people realize. I was in Uruguay for several years and the winters there are very cloudy, cold and rainy. Unfortunately, supplements were very, very expensive and light therapy was nonexistent. I also lived in an apartment that got virtually no natural light. I had to wait for sunny days and spent as much time in the sun as possible. That is one reason I picked Las Vegas when I returned to the States. Plenty of sunshine all of the time. Luckily SAD is no longer an issue.

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

      Very interesting! I can totally see how cold, gloomy days can make some people depressed. Although I'm usually quite a happy person, I do get slightly grumpier during wintertime. Just so much rain and wind. Too much Christmas shopping to do. And winter clothes make me look stocky! LOL

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 5 years ago

      I lived in Eugene, Oregon for seven years in late '80's and early '90's while obtaining my master's. By the time I moved back to Southern California, I was so hungry for sun I couldn't stay out of it. Spent every afternoon in the hottest part of the summer during the hottest time of day outside soaking it in. Didn't know about SAD then, but I'm sure I had it. Good hub.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      @krsharp05 - thanks for your comment. Must remember though that as long as we are getting a balanced diet we would be fine with most vitamins and minerals.

      @lindacee - thanks. Did you actually suffer with SAD whilst in Uruguay?

      @Om Paramapoonya - I included other ideas re causes of low mood because often we tend to over medicalize or at least professionals do.

      @watergeek - At least it seems to have resolved so that's great.

    • leahlefler profile image

      leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

      I actually struggle with seasonal affective disorder - I grew up in California and we moved to the Great Lakes region about a decade ago. The winters were are long with very little sun - it is incredibly difficult in the winter months. The snow starts at the end of October in some years and doesn't end until the first of May. We soldier through it every year, but I'm definitely thinking of upgrading the lighting in our house! And taking some additional Vitamin D!

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 5 years ago from Malaysia

      When I was in boarding school, one of our senior, used to be moody and sometime aggressive, when it is full moon. We called him the werewolf! Not sure what happen to him now but I know he used to be anti-establishment during the Uni days and was always fighting for some causes.

    • lindacee profile image

      lindacee 5 years ago from Arizona

      meloncauli, I wasn't formally diagnosed with it, but I stayed extremely depressed during the winter months. Maybe one reason Uruguay has one of the highest suicide rates in Latin America. http://infosurhoy.com/cocoon/saii/xhtml/en_GB/feat...

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      I know many people with SAD. I get it often in the summer, but I struggle with Bipolar anyway, so it just may be conincidence. Good iformation. I have a friend who swears by her light therapy.

    • catgypsy profile image

      catgypsy 5 years ago from the South

      Living in the South, summer gets me really depressed because it is so hot and humid, so I don't know if this is the summer version of this or just a normal reaction.

      Great hub! You cover your topics so well...great job!

    • crazybeanrider profile image

      Boo McCourt 5 years ago from Washington MI

      Insightful hub...I am the opposite, i get depressed and anxious during the summer months, the heat somehow triggers a depression, I am bipolar, so it may just be my ongoing cycle. I rarely get depressed in the winter, good advice for those suffering from SAD.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Leahlefler - I see . Yes, lighting would be a good investment for your mood. It is said that getting up to watch a sunrise is therapeutic for seasonal affective disorder. Trouble is no one likes to rise that early!

      greatstuff - not sure the moon is to blame ha ha but some do believe it!

      lindacee - that's really interesting, thanks for the link.

      lambservant - bipolar and summer seasonal affective disorder are sometimes linked.

      catgypsy - maybe I should write about the summer seasonal disorder. There wasn't really enough room in one article to cover it all. Thanks for your kind comment.

      crazybeanrider - another summer sufferer? It is actually much less common but isn't it interesting that in these few comments, three people probably suffer with the summer variety? Thanks for the comment.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      A fabulous overview of SAD! I know a couple people who regularly suffer from it. Perhaps I should send this Hub over so they can better know how to contend with it.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Simone. I hope it can be of some use to them.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 4 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Thank you. This hub is right on. My wife and I recognized her SAD over 30 years ago. Fortunately, light therapy was effective. It was harder in Boston and somewhat in New Jersey. When we relocated - for her career - first to Texas then to Florida, her challenges have been much less. Natural sunlight treatment, with exercise (she bicycles to work) has been most effective. But lamps that simulate sunlight and Vitamin D supplements have been a big help, too.

    • meloncauli profile image
      Author

      meloncauli 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks for your comment. It's good to hear that light therapy has helped her and that she suffers a little less now.

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