How to identify seasonal affective disorder
During this time of year, especially for Midwesterners, it's common to experience "the winter blues" as a result of the drearily cold and dark days. Oftentimes, individuals tend to feel better during the longer daylight hours of springtime.
However, some individuals experience more serious symptoms that can affect how they feel, think and handle daily activities. This type of depression is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and is characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting four to five months per year.
While SAD symptoms usually start to show up in older teenagers or young adults, younger children can experience SAD, too. Dr. Bavani Rajah, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Lurie Children's, breaks down what this looks like.
"SAD is a type of depression typically triggered by changes in seasons," Rajah said. "During late fall and winter, the amount of light and sunshine our bodies receive drastically changes, which can cause individuals to experience a 'circadian rhythm' or sleep-wake cycle."
She notes that experiencing periods of feeling sad, low and even unmotivated to leave the house during winter is common, but what makes a diagnosis like seasonal affective disorder different is the length of time and impact it has on an individual's life.
Many signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include those associated with major depression, as well as some specific symptoms that differ for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD.
Rajah encourages people to keep an eye on the following behaviors:
• Depressed or irritable mood
• Lack of energy and motivation
• Losing interest in previously enjoyed activities
• Difficulty with sleep or appetite
• Feelings of isolation and withdrawal from social activities
• Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
• Suicidal thinking (*See note at end of story.)
For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:
• Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
• Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
• Weight gain
• Social withdrawal (feeling like "hibernating")
Specific symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include:
• Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
• Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
• Restlessness and agitation
• Episodes of violent behavior
"If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, help is out there," said Rajah. "Talking to your primary care provider or seeking help from a mental health professional is always a great first step."
A professional will be able to communicate the treatment options and help determine the best path, which may include medication, light therapy, psychotherapy or a combination thereof.
For more information on SAD, depression and treatments, visit the National Institute of Mental Health and the Center for Environmental Therapeutics.
*Suicide crisis line
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thinking, immediate help is available. The National Suicide and Crisis Line operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text 988 for immediate assistance.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit www.LurieChildrens.org.