The weather's growing
colder. The days have gotten shorter.
Suddenly, your mood has
While you might think you
have a case of the winter blues, your feelings could be something more. Seasonal
affective disorder is a form of depression that recurs every fall and winter but
usually subsides when spring arrives. It's a mood disorder, characterized by
episodes of clinical depression, mania or both.
“It really has to do
with the amount of light a person gets,” said Martin Rosenzweig, a
psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “It's kind
of like a hibernation. You know, bears go through a time when all they do is
sleep, they eat a lot and want to be left alone. Humans go through it too, but
it just affects some people worse than others.”
Rosenzweig said the
disorder's intensity depends upon geographical location. For North America,
people will usually be affected by the disorder from about October to March.
While the illness is more
common in the North, don't rule it out in warmer temperatures. In Waco,
psychiatrists said they see patients suffering from the disorder.
Stephen Mark, a Waco
psychiatrist, said less than 2 percent of our population is affected by the
disease, but he has treated patients for it. On average, between 5 and 10
percent of Americans suffer from seasonal affective disorder, Rosenzweig said.
“It really affects
people who live in places where it's cloudy and rainy most of the time,” Mark
According to the National
Institutes of Health, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is rare. For those
susceptible, it tends to first occur in adolescence or early adulthood and stays
with a person for life.
Mark said the illness
affects chemicals in the brain through the eyes. The illness is a biochemical
disorder, not an emotional one, he said. Symptoms include lack of energy, loss
of concentration, decreased interest in work or other significant activities,
increased appetite with weight gain, increased sleep, social withdrawal and
Although these symptoms
are similar to those of basic depression, experts say the two shouldn't be
Treating the disorder is
relatively easy. Having the person sit in front of a full-spectrum light is the
best method, medical experts say. Known as light therapy, patients vary their
times sitting under the bright light.
“Most light bulbs are
not full-spectrum,” said Rosenzweig. “There are light boxes available for a
couple hundred dollars that people can use. All it takes is a half hour to an
hour a day for people to feel better. (The treatment) is literally like turning
the lights on for them.”
patients sit about 14 inches away from the light box but not directly stare at
it. The light should be able to penetrate the retina, but patients can perform
tasks while using the box.
“I've had patients read
the newspaper, exercise and do other things,” he said. “The results are
dramatic. Just once a day in the morning, and people feel so much better.”
Both Rosenzweig and Mark
suggest, if people can't afford a light box, they get outdoors into the sunshine
as often as possible. Rosenzweig even has recommended to some of his patients
they move to an area with plenty of sunlight during winter months. For severe
cases, doctors can prescribe medication to combat the depression to work in
conjunction with therapy.
“This really can be a
disabling illness,” he said. “It can be very difficult for people to
function. They can't go to work or even get out of bed.”
Rosenzweig also suggests
people who think they suffer from SAD should see a psychiatrist.
“People don't recognize
it as a very treatable disease, but it is,” he said. “It can be fierce, but
it's treatable, and people feel so much better.”