Don't mistake your "winter blues" for Seasonal Affective Disorder

- We're back on Standard Time and you'll notice it's getting dark earlier, something that can have a real impact on your mental health. 

According to Cleveland Clinic psychiatrist Mirica Sanders, there's a difference between "the winter blues" and Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. She says SAD happens when winter blues turn into a depressed mood that extends into weeks instead of days.  

"You have other symptoms like disturbances in your sleep, loss of interest, decreased energy, no motivation, changes in your appetite. Usually in Seasonal Affective Disorder you see an increase in appetite and a lot of women and men will say, 'Hey, I'm gaining some weight,' during these winter months," Dr. Sanders explains. 

She says those who experience SAD also have a tendency to withdraw from social occasions and some even have thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness.  

She says previous research has shown women tend to experience SAD four times more often than men. Those who are impacted by SAD tend to experience symptoms between the ages of 18-30. When the days get shorter and we have less sunlight, Dr. Sanders says that an over-production of melatonin can contribute to people feeling tired and having less energy.  

Likewise, people with SAD have difficulty regulating serotonin, which is the brain chemical that is responsible for balancing mood. For those who find themselves unable to shake depressive feelings during the change in seasons, Dr. Sanders suggests seeking the help of a health professional. Medications, cognitive therapies, and other methods, such as light therapy, can make a real difference.

"Bright light therapy is a treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder and this is just a particular type of light that one person can sit in front of for about 20 to 60 minutes a day, in the morning, to get that boost of energy," Dr. Sanders says.

Dr. Sanders says it's important not to ignore seasonal depressive symptoms or chalk them up as "holiday stress." She says that Seasonal Affective Disorder is actually a type of major depressive disorder that needs attention and treatment.

For the winter blues, you can help youself by opening blinds and getting outside, even on a cloudy day. Outdoor light and exercising can help. 

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