Arguably, one of the greatest sensations in the world is feeling the rays of the sun dance upon your skin. The exquisite combination of heat and light simultaneously warming your skin is like no other feeling. Whether you are soaking up the sun while lying on the beach, sunbathing on a lounge chair poolside, or feeling the sun tickle your face during a walk, it feels amazing. When the sun is out, we feel energetic, motivated, and happy. The world seems like a beautiful, lit up place where anything is possible. When we feel good, we are better able to tolerate frustration and disappointment. Our coping mechanisms are at their zenith, we are able to look on the bright side when things do not go our way, and we feel more equipped to face the world.
The sun, mild temperatures, and beautiful weather are present during the spring and summer months. In the middle of June, we experience the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. As the sun sets late in the evening, you feel like a million dollars. Your spirits are up and you feel like there is nothing that could bring you down.
Then, it gets darker a minute earlier every day following the summer solstice. Summer gives way into fall, the beaches close, temperature drops, and daylight’s savings descends upon us. Suddenly, we don’t feel like a million bucks anymore. We feel sad and irritable, sometimes not knowing or understanding why. Whether we know it or not, we are really experiencing the impact of seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of clinical depression related to seasonal changes. For the majority of people who experience seasonal affective disorder, symptoms begin in the fall and intensify during the bleak, dark months of the winter, only to dissipate with the return of spring. Although much rarer, some people experience the opposite pattern, where they become depressed during the spring and summer months, only to break out of it in the fall and winter.
Symptoms usually range from mild to severe and tend to intensify as the season moves forward. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include depression, a lack of motivation, lethargy, disrupted sleeping and eating patterns, and low concentration. People may feel doomed, discouraged, or insignificant, while experiencing suicidal or self-harming thoughts. Symptoms directly related to winter-onset seasonal affective disorder include oversleeping, weight gain, fatigue, and low energy, while symptoms related to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder include sleeplessness, low appetite, weight loss, and worry and tension.
The cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. However, factors that may contribute to the development of the disorder include disrupted circadian rhythms and a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels in the body. A reduction in sunlight during the winter months may be disruptive to a person’s circadian rhythm, thus instigating feelings of depression. Decreased sunlight can also trigger a drop in the brain chemical serotonin, impacting mood, and in the body’s amount of melatonin, influencing mood and sleeping patterns.
Risk factors for the development of seasonal affective disorder include family history, a mental health diagnosis of another mood disorder, or living far from the equator, where there is a decreased amount of sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder can worsen if not treated and can cause considerable amounts of distress in several areas of a person’s life including academics, occupational, or social functioning.
Seasonal affective disorder can be effectively treated with light therapy, medications, and talk therapy. Light therapy, or phototherapy, involves exposure to a bright light that imitates natural sunlight. Light therapy is usually the first treatment intervention recommended for a seasonal affective disorder diagnosis. Antidepressant medications may also be prescribed if symptoms are severe and psychotherapy can be recommended in tandem to assist with improving coping and stress management.