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Coming Out of the Dark: Understanding and Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

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Does the winter seem to cast a long shadow over your general mood? If the lack of sunlight brings you down each year, you’re not alone. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real and challenging condition, but tends to respond well to treatment.

It’s that time of year where the days begin to grow shorter, and you may find yourself struggling with the increasing darkness of the season. Countries in higher latitudes such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, are especially affected by seasonal changes in sunlight, with some areas spending weeks without the sun even cresting the horizon.

For some, the psychological effects of the lack of sun go beyond “winter blues” to a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that can significantly impact motivation, sleep, appetite and mood, and even cause suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, SAD is treatable, and a range of therapies are available to lessen the symptoms of SAD. Understanding our biological relationship with the sun, and how SAD works, can help shed further light on effective treatment.

Why is Sunlight So Important for Mental Health?

The rise and setting of the sun each day triggers a range of biological cues related to our metabolism and sleep cycle. When this pattern is disrupted, the resulting impacts can make us feel more tired, less healthy, and depressed. For example, persistent darkness has been shown to disrupt the body’s metabolism, affecting how we get energy from food and the functioning of our immune system. Lack of sunlight also lessens the brain’s natural production of melatonin, a light-dependent hormone that signals when it is time for us to sleep. Our intake of Vitamin D, linked to bone, teeth and muscle health as well as improved mood, is largely dependent on the amount of sunlight we get.

Studies have also indicated that reduced exposure to natural sunlight may result in lower levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood. Higher levels of serotonin correlate with feelings of satisfaction and calm, while lower levels result in depression and anxiety. No other weather conditions, including hot or cold temperatures, seem to have the effect on serotonin levels that simple sunlight does. 

This research underlines the importance of the sun to our mood and overall health, which is especially relevant for those who:

  • Live in areas where sunlight is decreased for part of the year
  • Have seasonal affective disorder
  • Work at night
  • Spend most time indoors away from natural sunlight

These factors could potentially put you at greater risk of adverse effects from lack of sun exposure.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Though many people report feeling some shifts in mood or energy levels during the winter months, for some these changes are significant. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is linked to the changing seasons, and generally comes on during the fall months and abates in the spring. Symptoms may noticeably intensify with the progressive lack of sunlight.

The symptoms of SAD are similar to other depressive disorders and can include:

  • Lack of energy and motivation
  • Consistent feelings of depression
  • Loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling slow, foggy or irritable
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Feeling hopeless, guilty or worthless
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you are noticing that you are experiencing these symptoms every time winter rolls around, you may have seasonal affective disorder. While some tend to brush off SAD symptoms as just the winter blues, people who have SAD have a higher likelihood of developing co-occurring disorders that can further complicate both mental and physical health.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Linked to Substance Abuse?

Like other mood disorders, seasonal affective disorder is correlated with substance abuse. One report found that over 20% of people diagnosed with some type of mood disorder also were living with a substance abuse problem. For those with seasonal affective disorder, substance abuse can trigger SAD, or people can turn to substances to try to cope with the symptoms of SAD. Different types of substances affect SAD in their own unique ways.

Alcohol and SAD

Alcohol appears to be the drug of choice for many people living with SAD. This could be related to the craving for carbohydrates that accompanies seasonal changes in metabolism, but is also likely influenced by the proliferation of alcohol at celebrations around the holidays. Studies have long shown that while alcohol use may temporarily relieve symptoms of stress – feelings of depression, anxiety and fatigue often increase as alcohol is leaving the body. This can further aggravate symptoms of SAD.

Marijuana and SAD

Marijuana is another drug that people turn to for relief of feelings of depression and anxiety. However, much like alcohol, coming down from a marijuana high often leaves users feeling depressed, which can compound SAD.

Stimulants and SAD

Generally people with SAD turn to stimulants as a way to try and fight the exhaustion or lack of motivation that accompanies the disorder. As the effects of stimulants wear off, an acute crash often ensues that includes intense feelings of depression and fatigue, and exacerbates SAD.

Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder

You might have convinced yourself that seasonal affective disorder is just something you have to deal with each winter. However, the reality is that with the right kind of treatment, winters can be a healthy, enjoyable time of the year – every year. 

As a key trigger for seasonal affective disorder is the reduction in exposure to sunlight, light therapy is typically an important component of treatment. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box (which can be purchased and used at home upon waking), or in a room where the lighting is designed to mimic that of natural sunlight for a period of time each day. 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has also proven effective in minimising symptoms of SAD. CBT helps you explore negative thoughts and behaviours to understand what causes them, and then practise ways to change those patterns. CBT also focuses on the development of healthy coping skills and stress management, which alleviates feelings of depression and fatigue. 

Stepping into the Light at The Dawn in Thailand 

The Dawn Residential Mental Health Centre Thailand offers effective the personalised depression treatment.

At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab, we offer a Mental Wellness programme specially tailored to your unique needs. Our programme aims to make our clients feel better almost immediately, gain a deeper understanding of their symptoms, and learn skills to effectively manage their condition. The holistic nature of our programming, which combines effective psychotherapeutic techniques with proven wellness practices like yoga, meditation, and fitness training, is well-suited to the treatment needs of seasonal affective disorder.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder in Thailand

Our stunning, tropical location means that light therapy will be accessed simply by stepping outside your room into our lush gardens. The winter months of Thailand are characterised by mild temperatures, and dry, sunny days – a boon for those looking to escape the dark, dreary months of winter in northern climes. Our well-appointed facilities, from our wellness studio, to our gym, to our outdoor swimming pool, will give you plenty of reasons to get out and get some sunshine. 

Instead of simply slogging through another winter, call us today and learn how to embrace it at The Dawn.

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