Autumn is a time for apple picking, watching the leaves turn, and pumpkin spice flavouring for a variety of things.

It’s also a time for SAD. Short for Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD is a mood disorder subset where people “who have normal mental health throughout most of the year exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in winter.”

Normally, it starts around the same time each year, generally in the fall or winter. Symptoms can include feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy, experiencing problems with sleeping, changes in appetite or weight, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating, even thoughts of death or suicide.

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, also known as winter depression, can include oversleeping, changes in appetite, especially a craving for foods high in carbs, weight gain, and tiredness or low energy.

Sad isn’t something that just happens in the fall or winter, it can also happen in spring or summer. Symptoms of summer-onset SAD are the polar opposite to those of winter-onset SAD, and can include insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, and agitation or anxiety.

I was diagnosed with SAD a few months ago after experiencing the worst winter in terms of energy levels. There were days my energy levels were drained by the time I was finished getting ready for work in the morning. Those were the days I called ‘heavy days’, but there were also ‘semi-heavy days’, where energy levels were fine in the morning, but over the course of the day would drain, sometimes gradually, sometimes not. One time, after running into an old acquaintance while shopping, I felt a literal drop in energy after talking and catching up with them.

I use the word heavy, because my body literally felt heavy. It wasn’t just arms and legs, it was fingers, eyelids, shoulders, etc. 

It’s a frustrating disorder to deal with. You wake up in the morning, and you don’t know what the day is going to be like. You don’t know if your energy is going to last the whole day, part of the day, or just the hour or so it takes to get ready in the morning. Because you’re so drained, you find it hard to work up the energy needed to even cook.

The specific causes of SAD aren’t known, but some factors could include a person’s circadian rhythm, in which the decrease of sunlight may disrupt the body’s internal clock; a drop in serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that affects mood; and a disruption in the body’s balance of melatonin, a chemical that plays a role in a person’s sleep patterns and mood.

It can be hard to diagnose SAD, a person pretty much has to go through a process of elimination to find out what’s wrong. This can include blood work, sleep apnea testing, along with physical and/or psychological testing.

Treatments for SAD can include light therapy, in which a person sits a few feet from a special light box, exposed to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood; medication like antidepressants, psychotherapy, and more.

It can be hard dealing with SAD, but if you can find the right treatment, it gets easier.

Jillian Trainor


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