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Feeling down this holiday season? Seasonal affective disorder may be to blame

Seasonal Affective Disorder

This time of year, many of us find ourselves busy running holiday errands and attending endless social and family events. It’s a time that’s supposed to be all about good cheer, but for many people it can be a time of sadness. Maybe it’s just the stress of the to-do list that’s bringing you down or the fact the daylight hours are shorter, but maybe there is more to it.

Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Yudkoff says this time of year seasonal affective disorder (SAD) might be to blame for those winter blues. In fact, he says up to three percent of people experience SAD in their lifetime.

“There are two different types of SAD: fall-winter onset and spring-summer onset,” says Dr. Yudkoff. “Fall-winter onset is most common, especially around the holidays. Signs of fall-winter onset SAD include increased need for sleep, increased appetite (especially cravings for carbohydrates) and weight gain. We also see social isolation, which can be worrisome especially considering how this is a time of celebrated reconnections.”

And it’s not just feelings of depression. Symptoms of SAD can also include manias.

“We believe there are several causes of fall-winter onset SAD,” says Dr. Yudkoff. “As the night hours become longer there are longer durations of the secretion of a hormone related to sleep called melatonin. Some studies show that, compared with people without SAD, people with SAD have longer total durations of melatonin secretion. It’s interesting to note that mammals that hibernate have a similar biological response and there may be some connection between SAD and how our bodies naturally adapt to colder, less productive seasons.”

However, there are ways to treat SAD. “There are actually lots of very effective treatment options, ranging from at-home things you can try to treatment plans that require the guidance of professional providers,” explains Dr. Yudkoff. “These include bright light therapy, serotonergic antidepressants, dawn simulation therapy, daily walks outside, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, aerobic exercise and regulated sleep hygiene.”

If the holiday season has you feeling down and you worry it’s more than just the stress of this time of year, speak with your primary care provider about a referral to Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital’s Outpatient Psychology Program.

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