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What Caregivers Should Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

Dec 06 2018

By Joe Fleming, President, ViveHealth.com

While the busy holiday season and rush into the New Year can feel like a whirlwind, the following time can actually end up feeling more like falling into depression than a “calm after the storm.” As winter deepens, natural light exposure can decrease dramatically and falling temperatures may keep people from enjoying the activities and outings that bring them joy.

Caregivers and their loved ones can suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is why it is critical they learn about common warning signs and tips for taking early action to mitigate its effects. Don’t miss this quick guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder for caregivers:

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of seasonal depression that typically presents itself in the late fall and lasts through winter. Believed to be triggered in part by common winter-weather factors like shorter, colder days and a natural reduction in time spent outside of the house, SAD affects millions of people in the U.S. each year (particularly folks who live furthest from the equator).

Researchers believe that low light exposure from early sunsets in the winter and staying cooped up in the house to avoid the cold may disrupt the natural circadian rhythm of some people, as well as unbalance normal levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone, melatonin. This combined with environmental factors can bring on a diagnosable depression.

While mild cases are often referred to as the “winter blues,” an onset of SAD can actually be accompanied by symptoms of major depression including:

  • Low energy;
  • Sleep problems;
  • Feeling agitated or irritated;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Social withdrawal;
  • Restlessness;
  • Increased anxiety;
  • Body aches (like back pain);
  • Changes in appetite or weight;
  • Experiencing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness; and
  • Loss of motivation and interest in once-enjoyable activities.

The National Institute of Mental Health shares that symptoms specific to this type of winter seasonal depression may also include:

  • Overeating and weight gain;
  • Craving carbohydrates;
  •  A desire to “hibernate” (social withdrawal);
  • Tiredness; and
  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)

Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder

In addition to looking out for alarming warning signs, caregivers should also be mindful of factors that may increase their or their loved one’s risk of developing SAD.

  • Sex - on average, women are diagnosed with SAD four times as much as men.
  • Age - younger people are more likely to experience SAD; the average age of onset is between 18 and 30, though older adults can experience it too.
  • Existing mental health condition - people who already suffer from mental health conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression may be at a higher risk of suffering from SAD.
  • Family history - research has shown that those with family members who have had some types of depression in the past are more likely to develop SAD.

If you care for an older adult, it is important to be mindful of other risk factors that when combined with seasonal temperature and light changes may exacerbate feelings of depression. Everything from unaided hearing loss to mobility problems and chronic pain can play a role in negatively impacting a senior’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

As a type of major depression, SAD is a condition that should be addressed with the help of a doctor or other trusted medical professional. Gone untreated, SAD can lead to a pronounced decline in overall health. Less activity and social engagement combined with poor eating and exercise habits brought on by depression can quickly increase you or your loved one’s risk for developing suicidal thoughts, life-threatening illnesses or substance abuse problems.

Doctors can work with you to formulate an effective treatment plan that helps mitigate the effects seasonal changes during winter can have on you. Conservative treatment options may include:

  • Phototherapy - more commonly known as light therapy, this treatment method involves bright light exposure at the start of each day that mimics natural light exposure.
  • Mind-body practices - mindfulness techniques that help SAD sufferers cope with symptoms may include yoga, tai chi, music and art therapy, and meditation.
  • Medications - for some cases of SAD, pharmaceutical antidepressants can significantly help address chemical imbalances that cause more severe symptoms.
  • Psychotherapy - speaking with a therapist or undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy can help people with SAD to develop toolkits for managing stress and identifying and changing negative behaviors.

In general, caregivers can take proactive steps to stave off SAD, especially if you or your loved one are high-risk. This may involve making the home environment sunnier, scheduling regular outings or get-togethers with friends, exercising regularly and getting outside while the sun is up for a walk or simply to sit in the sunshine. You can find more tips for preventing and managing SAD from the Mayo Clinic.