Though winter is usually marked for many by its festive holidays and celebrations, the season isn't always a time of cheer and light. Especially for those who have lost contact with their family, the holidays can be a particularly difficult time. Though an often promulgated misconception is that suicides rise around Christmas (they don't), there are still very serious mental health and physical health risks for individuals during the winter season.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as seasonal depression, affects millions of Americans every year. Though any person can experience SAD as a season changes, frequency and severity of the condition are most commonly associated with the turn from warmer seasons to colder ones. The preponderance of holidays late in the year also affects public perception of SAD, though there are many other factors that may contribute to an individual developing SAD (including substance abuse and eating disorders).
Understanding how SAD affects individuals and can be treated, it first helps to understand what can put a person at risk of developing Season Affective Disorder.
But first, what is SAD exactly? According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression (not separate from depression itself) that occurs during specific times of the year. The most usual pattern is increased severity in winter/fall, while SAD recedes in the spring and summer. Psychology Today cited statistics finding SAD is thought to affect some 10 million Americans a year, while another 10 to 20 percent experience more mild symptoms.
Some of the symptoms that those with SAD may experience include:
- Feelings of depression most of the day, every day during the season.
- Social withdrawal, or "hibernating."
- Trouble sleeping, always feeling tired or sluggish.
- Becoming agitated or annoyed quickly.
- Seeing changes in weight and fluctuation in body appearance.
- Having thoughts of hopelessness, guilt or self-harm.
NIMH held that to be diagnosed with SAD, individuals must meet the full criteria for major depression occurring contemporaneously with specific seasons for at least two years. While there is discussion on what is directly responsible for SAD, let's look closer at some of the risk factors that are associated with developing the condition.
Experiencing a trauma during the winter or fall (for that matter, also the spring or summer) can lead a person to relive their experience and pain every time that season, month or day rolls around. Whether the trauma involves losing a close family member or physical or sexual abuse, it can be tough for people to have a yearly reminder of the event, which can lead to an overall onset of SAD.
Being a woman or young
According to NIMH, women are almost four times more likely to be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Those between the ages of 20 and 30 are also more likely to develop SAD than adults in older generations. While there isn't a ton of agreement on what specifically relates to women and young people being more at risk, some have connected disorder prevalence to occurring during child-bearing years.
Family history has a large role to play in the potential development of SAD. Individuals who have or had relatives that were diagnosed with major depression in their lifetimes are at greater risk of developing SAD on their own. But the question of biology doesn't end there. Many point to a lack of sun as being a primary driver of decreased melatonin levels and disrupted circadian rhythms. When the sun sets at 4 p.m. in the dead of winter, it can cause a physical shock to some people's systems, which could then in turn lead to SAD. That's why light therapy (wherein patients are exposed to regulated sources of light) is a common technique used to combat SAD.
Another potential risk factor is alcohol abuse, which can either lead to SAD or exacerbate symptoms. Seeking help for a substance abuse disorder is a difficult step to take. But when it means you or a loved one spends half the year depressed (or feeling even more depressed), treatment is always an option. Contact Fairwinds Treatment Centers today to schedule an appointment and talk with someone about getting help.