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counseling for seasonal affective disorder

Sound familiar?

Julian loves the summer! The sunshine, outdoor sports, and cookouts come together to create the perfect trifecta.  He feels everything from pure joy to present moment contentment to nostalgic euphoria.  Unfortunately, however, during the late fall and winter months, Julian has an almost opposite end of the spectrum experience.   His fun-loving, free-spirited nature is still there, but he feels muted, contained, and at worst, trapped.  It can even mean he has to drag himself from the bed at morning time, and by 6 pm, he’s generally ready ready to fall back asleep. He feels depressed unmotivated in his work, school, and home life.

Pete is worried because winter has been over for almost 90-days, but his SAD is still lingering.   It seems like it should’ve let up it’s hold on him by now, but he continues to wrestle with feeling listless in spite of the fact that the sun is more likely to shine than not.  To be fair, each year since he first started noticing that the winter left him feeling low, his symptoms have worsened, but this is the first year they’ve persisted beyond the season itself, which makes little sense to him.  He hasn’t tried therapy but it is beginning to wonder if he needs to.  Is this seasonal affective disorder, or something else?  

Ramona has finally felt that heaviness begin to lift!  She suffers from anxiety and depression globally and throughout the year, but it gets particularly bad during the long, grey months that generally comprise late November through early March.  She thought she’d tried everything: lamps, exercise, diet changes, meditation, etc. — nothing seemed to mitigate her numbness.  Last week, for the first time ever, she broke down and began searching for a counselor.  Sure enough, when the weather became sunny this week indicating that the seasons are shifting, she feels lighter, more productive, and even a bit happier.  Of course, now that she feels happier, she’s wondering whether she really needs to pursue counseling.  She’d have to go now, while she had the energy to do so, but she just…wants…to enjoy…the sun!!!

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that originates during the Fall and Winter months.  Essentially, persons who suffer from SAD find that characteristically and habitually, their mood drops during the winter months in a way that isn’t explainable by other things that pop-up (or rather, if it is explainable by something else, then it isn’t SAD).

Are Seasonal Effective Disorder and Depression the Same Thing?

Even though SAD is a distinct phenomenon known to psychotherapists, its technical name according to the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (the guidebook for counselors and psychiatrists that contains a list of all commonly known mental health issues)  is actually Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Type — they’re essentially the same thing, but the Seasonal Type specifier just means the depression occurs at typical seasons throughout the year (fall/winter).  What’s more, just as with depression of other types, research indicates that individuals who have a family member with SAD, or have bipolar disorder are more likely to develop SAD at some point in their lives. Some may try and avoid the discomfort of SAD by engaging in maladaptive coping mechanisms (i.e., drugs, binge drinking, suicidal behavior, and disordered eating).  For example, it isn’t uncommon for persons with SAD to drink more on the weekends during winter months in an effort to feel better, the great irony being that alcohol actually functions as a depressant to the central nervous system (and thus, even though we use it to get “high,” when the initial intoxication effects where off, our bodies will actually feel more low).

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Typically, individuals who experience SAD notice a dramatic shift in their mood once the days become shorter. This is not just the case of the winter blues; instead, SAD is persistent and can lead to thoughts of hopelessness and suicide. SAD symptoms may include feelings of withdrawal, social anxiety, numbness, tiredness, lack of self-compassion, and increased hunger/weight gain. Although many people may try to ignore the signs of symptoms of SAD, this will hinder their work, school, and home lives.

Is SAD worse in St. Louis?

People often wonder if places like St. Louis, which have extended gray periods throughout the fall and winter months (and sometimes well into early Spring).  The answer?  Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder is often worse in people who have grayer days!!!

SAD is essentially comprised on a physiological level by messages sent from the body (i.e., hormones and neurotransmitters) which change with the seasons. For example, due to the shorter days and therefore a lack of sunlight, melatonin and serotonin levels may lower in response. These shifts in body chemistry create the feelings of sluggishness and depression that are common with SAD. Furthermore, the lack of light throughout the day disrupts internal physiological rhythms, upsetting sleep patterns and inducing what might otherwise be thought of as a desire to hibernate. Interestingly, those who live further away from the equator have higher levels of SAD possibly because there is a more extreme shift in daylight due to their relative distance from the equator.  As a result, these individuals may actually have the symptoms of SAD for longer than those living closer to the equator.

What if I Choose to Just Not Worry about Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Also, SAD can worsen if left untreated. Its severity may increase as the year’s pass, and some begin to dread the return of the winter months. Interestingly, SAD can occur (at lower rates) during the spring and summer months. During this time, an individual may experience a sudden spike in anxiety, a drop in appetite, and insomnia. It seems that the increase in sunlight may send our bodies into overdrive leaving some with too much serotonin and once again shifting our circadian rhythms out of order!

Thankfully, there are a few ways that you can help yourself. First and foremost, speaking with a mental health professional can set you on a path of self-understanding and compassion which can only help keep you on track when SAD surfaces. Secondly, medication (e.g., SSRI’s or melatonin supplements) can help with some of the symptoms of SAD. Medication, in tandem with therapy, can create a reliable safeguard when SAD becomes overwhelming. Light therapy has been shown to decrease many of the signs and symptoms of SAD. Bright light early in the morning can trick the body into producing the correct amounts of serotonin and melatonin. This kick-starts your body into creating the proper amount of chemicals throughout the day!

What can I do to help with my Seasonal depression now, before therapy?

  1. Begin listening to your body before the winter months take their toll. If you notice yourself becoming sluggish throughout the day, what can you change in your environment to help with your symptoms? Maybe it’s time to buy a light therapy device or pick out an alarm-clock that wakes you up to a sunrise.  There are even some devices that provide a sunrise light themselves! It’s a good idea to prepare yourself for the shorter days before they arrive.
  2. There is some degree to which we might find feeling a little blue during cold winter months normal.  Winter can be an isolating time — folks may be more reticent to get out int the cold weather, or may be literally trapped indoors because of snow or ice.  Take a deep breath.  It’s okay!!!  Monitor for what you tell yourself, and when you notice that you’re catastrophizing or predicting gloom and doom, see what you can employ to help you accept things as they are right then, right there.
  3. Be different.  In our culture, electronic interaction has often taken up residence where important civic, religious, or other institutions once stood.  For example, people who might’ve used to prioritize things like synagogue or social clubs now choose to stay in with their smart devices and social media apps.  Don’t be them!!!  Try taking up a new hobby or activity that includes physical activity and socializing. Continuing to move your body, while at the same time developing new friendships can help buffer some of the negative thought patterns that arise with SAD.  Furthermore, physical activity can help offset some of the symptoms of depression because it increases serotonin levels!

It’s normal for some people to struggle taking these suggestions.  In fact, that reality is often a prime indicator of the need for therapy.  We can help!

Our therapists aren’t just expert counselors – they’re agents of change!  They can help you address SAD and/or more general depression systems and find happiness and contentment.  We can help you build new and lasting support systems, restructure your internal self-image for the better, cope with the weather, and get you on the road to  healthy, vibrant living!

Looking for St. Louis Counseling for Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD Counseling in St. Louis?  

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