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What is seasonal affective disorder?


As the bright colors of autumn fade and give way to gloomy, gray winter days, winter blues can set in.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a condition that occurs as the light dwindles in the autumn, usually around September and October. It deepens towards the new year, and often January and February are the worst months.

“It is the result of a lack of light affecting people with the genetic vulnerability, and it is aggravated by stress,” Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School Doctor Norman Rosenthal said.

SAD is considered to be a mental disorder, but there are varied degrees. There are some who have a milder version, which is referred to as the winter blues.

Teenage girl looking out the window

Silhouette of sad teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day. (max-kegfire/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Later signs of SAD consist of sadness, depression, difficulty at work and in personal relationships, a sense of personal failure and despair.

“People who live in the far north or in cloudy areas are more susceptible to SAD than people in sunnier climates,” Rosenthal said.

In general, the worst time of the year for people with SAD is January and February because those tend to be the darkest months of the year.

“Even though the days are getting longer at that time, those are the months with the most cloud cover, therefore the darkest months,” Rosenthal said.

“In Hawaii, for example, on the shadowy side of mountains, there is a fair amount of SAD; less so in the sunny resort areas,” Rosenthal said.

An estimated five percent of Americans have SAD and another 15 percent experience the winter blues. In total, 20 percent of Americans are affected on some level.

Women experience SAD more than men by a factor of three to one.

“SAD in girls often starts after puberty and declines after menopause, suggesting that female sex hormones may play a role in rendering the brain susceptible to the lack of light,” Rosenthal said.

If you think you or someone you know are suffering from SAD

Bring more light into your environment. Also, increasing exercise, reducing stress and avoiding sweets and starches can help. Don't hesitate to consult a mental health professional. In some instances, antidepressants can be very helpful.

Light therapy against headache

Light therapy is a common treatment for a variety of conditions, from auto-immune disorders like psoriasis and eczema, to wound healing, to depression and seasonal affective disorder, to circadian rhythm sleep disorders. (Rocky89/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“What I want people with SAD to take away is that they can not only conquer the condition but that winter can also become a time of joy, peace and celebration with the world around them,” Rosenthal said.