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Seasonal Affective Disorder
Posted: November 11, 2010
Last Updated: November 11, 2010

Winter can cause some people unexpected depression without an obvious cause of the emotion only to discover the symptoms subsides when spring rolls around. This seasonal depression could be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).


SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression, but caused by the body’s chemical changes due to the lessening of light during the Autumn and Winter months as our hemisphere tilts away from the sun making the light rays contacting the earth’s surface less direct than in the spring and summer. Melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, has been linked to SAD. This hormone, which may cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark and in winter months in some people.  So as days grow shorter and darker the production of this hormone increases causing bouts of sadness or lethargy.


The increase chance of depression in the winter is nothing new to humans. Anthropologists believe that early pagans in Europe set most of their light focused rituals in the winter months. For example Yule, the precursor of our Christmas, is traditionally a festival of lights on the darkest day of the year. Even now over half a million people every winter, between September and April, combat the depression associated with SAD. The “Winter Blues,” a milder form of SAD, may affect even more people.


SAD symptoms include anxiety, mood changes, excessive sleeping, lethargy, overeating and irritability and the desire to avoid social contact. The severity of each person’s case depends both on their vulnerability to the disorder and their geographical location. SAD is more prone to affect women and onsets between 18 and 30 years of age. SAD occurs in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, but is rarely seen is in people living within 30 degrees latitude of the equator as that area where light rays strike the earth directly year round. 


Treatment for SAD is usually quite easy and effective. SAD sufferers are prescribed phototherapy, a daily treatment of light to help suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. This therapy is effective in 85 percent of SAD cases.  For mild symptoms everyone might experience in wintertime time outdoors during the day can help. One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light. Sometimes antidepressants are prescribed if the case is severe enough, but usually sitting under bright lights alleviates the symptoms of SAD.


If you feel SAD this season call Border Area Mental Health Services. To reach Border Area Mental Health Services in Grant and Hidalgo Counties, call 388-4412; in Catron County, call 533-6649 for referral; in Luna County, call 546-2174.  For CRISIS, call 538-3488 or outside Silver City, call 1-800-426-0997.

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© 2008 by Border Area Mental Health Services and Putting the Web to Work. Front-page photo copyright by Bob Pelham, Pinos Altos Cabins, and used by permission. All rights reserved. For the privacy and comfort of our clients and staff, the photographs used in this site are representative and do not show specific individuals associated with BAMHS.