Sad About Seasonal Affectation Disorder
Once the Christmas tree begins to add luster to your compost pile and the radio stations have stopped the endless canned holiday music, it's easy to wonder where the heck someone came up with, "'Tis the season to be jolly," because actually, you feel pretty bummed out. It happens every year. You feel tired all the time, moody, too. Sometimes you just have this lingering sense of anxiety for no particular reason at all.
Soon, you realize you'd rather stay home and eat stale Christmas cookies or a giant bowl of pasta than hang with your crowd. You have little appetite for sex—or maybe none at all. You find you just don't want to get out of bed in the morning, and once you do, you feel as gray and bleak as the view from your window.
Guess what? It's a real phenomenon brought on by none other than Mother Nature and comes every year to one in every four adults. It starts in October and vanishes in April as the last of the snow melts away. In most people, it's just about the winter doldrums, and a longing for the cold wet season to end. It manifests in cravings for carbohydrates and a feeling of sluggishness that's not unmanageable.
But in some 11 million Americans, winter depression is much more serious and is termed seasonal affectation disorder, known by its apt acronym as SAD. The condition is diagnosed after a sufferer experiences at least two years in a row of intense seasonal depressive symptoms.
According to Michael Terman, PhD, the director of the Winter Depression Program at New York Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University Medical Center, the winter doldrums may make it hard for you to wake up and get out of bed. On the other hand, someone who suffers from SAD is going to be late for work. "With the doldrums, it's in the norm to gain up to 5 or 6 pounds over the winter, but with full-blown SAD, weight gain can be far more than that," adds Terman.
Whether you've just got the doldrums or full-blown SAD, the cause is the same: reduced hours of sunlight owing to the shorter days of winter disrupt circadian rhythms, or your internal body clock. Whether you have mild symptoms or severe depends on a variety of factors such as your geographic location, genetics, and your personal brain chemistry.
Without sunlight, your brain has to work harder to produce melatonin, a hormone responsible for regulating your body's internal clock and patterns of sleep. Melatonin has been linked to depression, too. In general, those who live in the most northerly direction away from the equator have the highest risk for at least some level of winter depression. That means that while only 1% of those living in Florida experience winter depression, half of the residents of the northernmost areas of the U.S. and Canada suffer from this type of depression.