seasonal affective disorder what is it and who does it affect

These last few days have been nothing but cloudy weather, and with them they brought one of the biggest anxiety attacks I’ve had in awhile. It was so hard to breathe that my chest and lungs hurt, like I’d been running the mile for gym class.

Seasonal affective disorder may have had something to do with it, and it might not have. There’s no real way to be sure.

seasonal affective disorder winter blues SAD
Image (c) Luigi Torreggiani via Flickr. Altered.

But what is seasonal affective disorder? The Mayo Clinic describes it as thus:

“Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”

It was really interesting to me to find out that seasonal affective disorder can happen in all four seasons. I thought it was just a fall and winter thing, but apparently not. It got me to wondering if episodes of SAD can occur whenever it gets cloudy, rainy or generally dreary outside. An article from Live Science mentions this:

“…it has been hypothesized that the lack of sunlight disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm [physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle].”

A fluctuation in serotonin or melatonin levels that happen with seasonal changes may also be the cause. This may also explain why I have such trouble when my routine is interrupted. I get overly anxious and aggravated when there’s the slightest change, which indicates that I’m probably overly sensitive to these disruptions. Cloudy days certainly feel like a disruption during summer, out of the norm. Hmm.

Who is affected by SAD?

Several sources I’ve checked out all have the same numbers range. Roughly 1-10% of people in any given population are affected by seasonal affective disorder. Translated, that’s a minimum of 1 out of every 100 people, and with 7 billion people in the world, that measures out to 70 million people affected by this disorder. That’s a lot of people.

Location, age and gender, along with a family history of SAD or depression, can all be risk factors for having SAD. Being farther away from the equator, where seasons remain relatively sunny and warm, has a significant effect. Young females are the demographic most affected by SAD, but all ages can suffer from it.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Different types of SAD and varying factors make a single list of symptoms impossible, but the Mayo Clinic has divided symptom lists up for each type. Click here to see the full list of symptoms.

How can I prevent SAD?

Although there’s no cure for seasonal affective disorder, there are ways you can help prevent it from coming back, or at least lessen the symptoms. WebMD gives these helpful tips on preventing SAD:

  • Spend some time outside every day, even when it’s cloudy. The effects of daylight still help.
  • Begin using a 10,000 lux light box when fall starts, even before you feel the effects of winter SAD.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. This will help you have more energy, even if you’re craving starchy and sweet foods.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week.
  • Stay involved with your social circle and regular activities. Social support is very important.

Complications from SAD can affect your social, work and home life. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so mention any symptoms to your doctor, even if they’re mild. If your feelings of depression from SAD worsen, or if you find that it is negatively affecting your life at a greater level, contact your doctor immediately.

Do you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or do you know someone that does? What are some of the things that help you or this person cope?

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