Don’t Be SAD!

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

Enjoy the last few days of sunny afternoons– they’ll soon be gone for another year.
I am always amazed at how early it becomes dark outside during the winter. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the sky is typically already darkening on the worst days of winter. Such an early dusk is something I didn’t deal with when I was living in a more southern location and I can’t say I’ve adapted to it too well.
I dread short, dark winter days and seem to have less energy then usual when I don’t spend time outdoors in the winter. I realized just how much dark days affect me last spring. The afternoon chemistry lab I had once a week all winter usually left me exhausted even when it only lasted an hour two, ending before 5 pm usually. When I completed the last few labs in March and April, I noticed that I had a lot more energy than usual after the labs and wasn’t as tired as usual after them– despite they’re being the longer end-of-semester labs and putting in extra effort in studying in preparation for my upcoming finals.  Why? Perhaps the jolt of energy came from the anticipation of summer or perhaps it came from the springtime beams of sunlight that infiltrated the laboratory until well past the end of the chemistry lab.
Sunny days have the ability to put most people, me included, in good spirits, but for some, they hold more significance. It’s suggested by a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry using participants from Washington D.C. that 1.7 to 5.5% of teens (nine to nineteen years of age) may be troubled by Seasonal Affective Disorder. Some 2 to 3% of Ontarians are thought to have Seasonal Affective Disorder and an additional 15% of Onatarians are thought to have a mild condition similar to Seasonal Affective Disorder that is commonly called ”winter blues”.*
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a clinical depression that is triggered by a change of seasons and that is thought to be caused by seasonal changes in light. For most people affected by SAD, the season that triggers its effects is winter, although a few people are affected by it at the beginning of summer. The distinguishing characteristic of SAD is that, as its name implies, it is seasonal. That means that for a SAD diagnosis to be made, the depression experienced must occur annually at the same time of the year. The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of any other depression– weight gain due to cravings, reduced energy, oversleeping, an overwhelming sense of anxiety– making it hard to pinpoint SAD, time of the year being a fairly vague distinguishing characteristic.
Once pinpointed however, SAD can be treated. Antidepressants can be used, as can light therapy (increased exposure to artificial and natural light).
If you suspect that you may have SAD, it is important to consult a healthcare professional and not self-diagnose yourself because SAD symptoms are so similar to the symptoms of other conditions that won’t be improved by spending a bit more time basking in the sun or in a tanning bed (some people ”self-medicate” SAD by tanning).
As for me, I’ll be enjoying a midday mood boost during the afternoons of sunshine that this year’s schedule, free of afternoon labs, allots me.
Originally published in the Times & Transcript on September 17th, 2011.

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