After recently setting our clocks back one hour last week for Daylight Savings Time, we prepare for more hours of darkness and less sunlight. For many, this is a time to pay close attention to symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. In northern regions the impact of the darkness is greater; many of us go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, so the cumulative effect can be significant. In Michigan, this change seems so exaggerated and pronounced. In the summer, it is not uncommon to have long days with sunlight reaching until 9 p.m. or later, but as we move toward the winter months, we prepare for 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. sunsets and dark morning commutes.
SAD symptoms can be much like those of depression. However, the one main difference is that it is cyclic and seasonal; symptoms come back and go away around the same time every year. SAD is most common during the winter months; however, some experience similar mood changes in spring and summer, too.
According to the Mayo Clinic outline on SAD, fall and winter symptoms can include:
Loss of energy
Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Difficulty concentrating and processing information
Symptoms can start as mild, but can become more severe as the darker days and the season progresses. Many of us experience a few down or blue days with the increase in darkness or gray skies, but SAD is characterized by experiencing these symptoms for days at a time or noticing a marked change in motivation to do things you normally enjoy. Those who experience SAD may also notice their sleep patterns increasing with greater darkness, along with significant changes in appetite or loss of energy.
In order to appropriately diagnose SAD, consider using a calendar to track and record your symptoms. There are other risk factors that can contribute to a diagnosis of SAD, including increased stress levels, a family history of depression, living far from the equator (as we do in Michigan), and a decrease in melatonin and serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels (a brain chemical that impacts mood) and the darker days can also cause a change in our melatonin levels (a natural hormone that impacts sleep and mood).
If you have noticed that you “brace yourself” for the darkness of fall and winter and that you have noticed a pattern seasonally to these types of symptoms, you’re not alone. There are treatment options that can help. Light therapy, psychotherapy and medication can make a difference for people experiencing SAD. Contact your mental health practitioner if you’re noticing that darker days increase your feelings of hopelessness, if you find you’re turning to substances or alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or if you are feeling suicidal.
You don’t have to “survive” another winter in Michigan, there are options here to help you and ways you can feel better.