Seasonal Anxiety Disorder
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.
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.
- Increased anxiety
- 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.
What Causes SAD?
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) Causes - Mayo Clinic
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — Learn about symptoms and treatment of this seasonal depression.
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.
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.
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
Treatment for Seasonal Anxiety Disorder
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.
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.
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!
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.