Rhythm Out of Balance

Seasonal affective disorder comes and goes with the seasons, and can affect anyone.

by Kirk Wessler, OSF HealthCare
The American Psychiatric Association estimates five percent of adults in the United States are affected by seasonal affective disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates five percent of adults in the United States are affected by seasonal affective disorder.

If colder weather and shorter days put you in a funky mood, you might try to shrug it off as “winter blues.” But it could be more than that—especially if you feel this way every winter and the mood lingers for weeks or months.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It primarily strikes in the fall and dissipates in the spring. The end of Daylight Saving Time, which usually occurs around November 1, generally signals a rise in SAD diagnoses.

The American Psychiatric Association estimates five percent of adults in the United States are affected. The majority of people who have SAD are women in their child-bearing years. But “it can affect anybody, mostly from adolescence on,” according to Marybeth Evans, a licensed clinical social worker for OSF HealthCare. “Children and older adults can get it.”

The Role of Sunlight
Family medical history and your geographic location may contribute to SAD, which is less common closer to the equator. But biology plays a significant role.

SAD occurs when certain chemicals in our body get out of balance. These particular chemicals—serotonin and melatonin—both play a role in our sleep-wake cycles. Both are also affected by the amount of sunlight we experience.

Serotonin is known as the “happy chemical,” because it helps us feel good. Serotonin increases with sunlight and signals our body to wake up and get moving. Melatonin is a hormone that increases with darkness and signals to our body that it’s time to rest.

They work together to create our circadian rhythm, which is our internal, biological clock. When working properly, we have a healthy sleep-wake pattern and tend to be energetic and productive. When it’s off-kilter, our sleep becomes irregular, and we become prone to depression.

The Symptoms
The symptoms of SAD can be mild or severe. They can range from simple fatigue to frequent thoughts of death or suicide. Some symptoms might seem strange. For example, the American Psychiatric Association says you could feel fatigued because you sleep too much. Other symptoms may include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Disinterest in normal activities
  • Extensive daily depression
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Low energy
  • Overeating

Seeking Help
Immediate resources are available. “If you can’t do your regular activities, if you can’t get up for work or you can’t attend to your children or feel happy about anything, if you lose your sense of pleasure in life—that’s basically what depression does,” Evans says. “At that point, anybody should seek counseling.” PM

OSF SilverCloud is a free, interactive app that can help you manage your feelings, or call (833) 713-7100 and a behavioral health navigator can direct you to specific services. You may also contact the national Crisis Text Line by texting “SIGNS” to 741741 for anonymous, free crisis counseling. If you have thoughts of harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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