When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall…

Ah, the gorgeous colors and scents of autumn.  The russets, the rusts, the reds, the crisp night air, the darkening afternoons, the anticipation of the holidays to come.  It’s all there.  So brooding and poetic is autumn, so melancholy and romantic too, so timeless, so grounding.  And yet…

Despite the candy corn rush we all pretend not to enjoy and the cardigans that hide our indiscretions, and the spooky front yards all ghouled up for Halloween, and even despite the impending happy family gluttony that is Thanksgiving, what happens to far more of us than anyone realized until lately?  We get sad, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

SAD is not a fake disease or trendy rationalization.  It is a form of depression that occurs, like clockwork, at the same time each year.  There is a summer and spring variation, but for most of us with seasonal affective disorder, the lethargy and moodiness and vague sadness start in the fall and continue right on through the winter months.  If it happens just once, maybe it is simply the ‘winter blues’.  If it happens every year, know that there is real help available.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Loss of energy
  • Heavy, leaden feeling in the arms and legs
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for high carbohydrate foods
What causes SAD? 
Here are some of the factors that may contribute to SAD, but the specifics remain unknown.  Scientists and specialists in mental health matters agree, however, that genetics, age and our body’s natural chemical makeup all contribute:
  • Circadian rhythm.  This is your biological clock.  Sunlight levels are reduced in the fall and winter, which may throw off your body’s internal clock (which, in turn, tells you when to sleep and when to wake up).  There is much evidence supporting the idea that disrupting the circadian rhythm leads to feelings of depression.
  • Melatonin levels.  Melatonin is a natural hormone that plays a part in sleep patterns and mood.  The change in seasons may disrupt the balance of this hormone.
  • Serotonin levels.  Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that powerfully affects mood.  Reduced levels of sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop, perhaps bringing on depression.
There are risk factors that may increase the risk of seasonal affective disorder:
  • Living far from the equator.  Studies indicate that SAD is more common among those who live far south or far north of the equator.  It may be that the decreased sunlight of winter and longer summer days trigger the symptoms.
  • You are female.  While men appear to have SAD symptoms that are more severe, the disorder is diagnosed more often in women than men.
  • Having clinical depression or bipolar disorder.  Your symptoms of depression may be worse with the changing seasons if you have one of these conditions.
  • Family history.  Someone with SAD very likely has family members with the same condition (as with other types of depression).
Some of the complications of SAD are very serious.  Without proper treatment, again, as with all depression, things can get far worse:
When should you get help? You know the difference between a blue day or two or feeling low and down over a weekend and a deep sadness and apathy that goes on for days and days at a time.  If you have lost interest  in your favorite activities and have no  motivation to do much of anything, make an appointment to see your doctor.  And keep that appointment.  Pay particular attention to changes in your sleeping and eating habits, too.  
Next up: getting ready to see the doctor, what to expect when you get there and treatment options.

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