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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Seasonal Depression Symptoms, Causes

What are Seasonal Affective Disorders?

Seasonal Affective Disorders (a.k.a: Seasonal Depression) are mood disorders that cause depression seasonally. In most cases, seasonal affective disorder begins in fall or winter. The severity of the seasonal affective disorder is at its peak in December, January and February and the symptoms subside by spring or summer. The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder again appear in fall or winter. In rare cases, the symptoms are seen in an opposite pattern. The symptoms appear in spring or summer and disappear in fall or winter.

Seasonal affective disorder

The seasonal affective disorder is a common disorder. In India, more than 10 million cases are reported every year. The cause of seasonal affective disorders is not clear. It is more common in women than men.

What are the Symptoms of the Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The severity of the symptoms is mild in the initial stages and become severe gradually, irrespective of the season in which the symptoms start appearing. The various symptoms of the seasonal affective disorder are discussed below:

  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite changes
  • Lack of concentration
  • Drowsiness during the day
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Excess sleep or sleep deprivation

Symptoms Specific to Winter Pattern:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Craving for carbohydrates

Symptoms Specific to Summer Pattern (a rare case):

  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleep deprivation

What are the Causes of the Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The cause of the seasonal affective disorder is not well understood, but the most believed theory is that lack of sunlight during the fall and winter days affect the functioning of the hypothalamus which contributes to seasonal affective disorder. Lack of sunlight affect the functioning of the hypothalamus in the following way:

  • Secretion of Serotonin: Serotonin is a hormone that regulates mood. Lack of sunlight causes less secretion of serotonin which triggers depression.
  • Secretion of Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone or a chemical that controls sleep pattern, it directs the body to sleep or get up. In seasonal affective disorder, melatonin balance in the body is disrupted. Excess levels of melatonin cause excessive sleep and low levels will cause sleep deprivation.
  • Biological Clock of the Body: Low sunlight during the winter season disturbs the biological clock of the body. This might cause depression or other symptoms of the seasonal affective disorder.

Which Factors Increases the Risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Risk factors are attributes which increase the probability of experiencing seasonal affective disorder in an individual. The various risk factors of the seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Gender: The possibility of the seasonal affective disorder is more in women. It is four times more common in women than men.
  • Age: Young individuals are at high risk of developing seasonal affective disorder when compared to older adults.
  • Geography: Individuals living far away from the equator are at high risk due to less sunlight during the winter season and long days in summer.
  • Family History: Individuals who have seasonal affective disorders in the close family are at increased risk of developing seasonal affective disorders.
  • Other Disorders: Depression and bipolar disorders worsen the symptoms of seasonal affective disorders.

What are the Complications of Seasonal Affective Disorders?

Seasonal affective disorders must be considered seriously and should be treated as soon as possible. If it remains untreated it may cause the following problems:

  • Drug abuse
  • Social isolation
  • Suicidal behaviour
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Other mental health conditions like, anxiety or eating disorders

How is the Diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder done?

It is difficult to diagnose seasonal affective disorders as the symptoms are similar to other disorders. Diagnosis of the seasonal affective disorder is done if it satisfies the below-mentioned criteria:

  • Depression occurs at a particular time every year
  • Episodes of depression are short followed by time without any depression
  • The symptoms appear in the same season for two or more consecutive years

The following tests are generally done to diagnose seasonal affective disorder:

  • Physical Examination: The physician will do a physical examination and ask questions about an individual’s medical history in depth. In few cases, the symptoms are associated with an underlying cause.
  • Lab Tests: The physician will ask to complete blood test to know about the general health of the individual. A thyroid test is also done to confirm if the thyroid gland is working properly.
  • Psychological Evaluation: Psychological evaluation of the individual is done to confirm depression. The physician will ask questions regarding the individual’s feelings, thoughts, symptoms and behaviour patterns.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorders Treated?

If the treatment of the seasonal affective disorder is done early, the complications can be prevented. The following methods are used for treating seasonal affective disorders:

  • Light Therapy: In light therapy, the individual sits in front of an artificial light source for an hour after getting up. It is done to compensate for the low diminished sunlight of the fall and the winter. It is effective in reducing symptoms of seasonal affective disorders.
  • Medication: Anti-depressants are effective in treating the severe seasonal affective disorder. In most cases, the physician will prescribe anti-depressant medications before the symptoms begin to appear.
  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy: The physicians do cognitive therapy to change the negative thoughts of an individual as this will make the symptoms worse. The individuals are trained to manage stress and cope with symptoms of seasonal affective disorders.

What Lifestyle Changes can be done in Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Along with treatment, certain lifestyle medications can be effective in treating seasonal affective disorders. The following lifestyle changes should be done:

  • The individual should exercise daily as it reduces stress and anxiety
  • Make the environment at home brighter and sunnier by trimming the trees that blocks sunlight, using skylights etc
  • Increase the sun exposure by spending more time outdoors or by sitting close to the window

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