EAP Matters

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

"Between spring and fall she is energetic, cheerful, and productive. She initiates conversations and social arrangements and is regarded as a valuable friend, coworker and employee. She is able to manage everything that is expected of her with time and energy to spare. During the winter, however, her energy level and ability to concentrate are reduced, and she finds it difficult to cope with her everyday tasks. She generally just wants to rest and be left alone, Ďlike a hibernating bear.í This state persists until the spring, when her energy, vitality, and zest for life return." (Winter Blues, Norman Rosenthal, MD)

According to Dr. Rosenthal, many people experience variations as the seasons change. Energy, sleep, eating patterns and mood can fluctuate based upon the time of year. Research supports the belief that during the winter and fall seasons, people have a lower energy level, difficulty concentrating, tend to eat and sleep more and become more emotional and stressed out. Furthermore, other symptoms may include decreased desire for intimacy and overall feelings of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the name associated with this type of depression.

Much research has focused on the winter months. People, who live in the upper part of the United States as well as in Canada, tend to experience greater symptoms of SAD during this time of year. However, SAD may also affect individuals who live closer to the equator, but during the summer months. In fact, those individuals report feeling more depressed when the sun is out and the temperature rises.

The importance of understanding SAD is that it is a seasonal disorder. It is common for people to "forget" how they were feeling last fall or winter. They may feel so glad that itís over they devote all of their time to preparing for spring. Unfortunately, many if not all the symptoms return the next fall and the downward spiral continues. Dr. Rosenthal identifies three keys to the development of depression in SAD:

Inherent vulnerability: Women, between 20 and 40, tend to be most vulnerable which may be associated with hormonal changes. Research suggests adolescent females are at higher risk following puberty. In addition, SAD tends to run in families and usually thereís a close relative with a history of depression.

Light deprivation: People in the northern part of the US are at increased risk due to diminishing sunlight during winter. Biologically, we seem to gain energy from the sunís rays; energy is depleted when itís increasingly cold and dark.

Even in sunnier places, individuals who donít get much natural light throughout their day may experience minor symptoms of SAD.

Stress plays a role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. The holidays tend to be a stressful time of year for many people anyway. Long hours, cold weather and sick kids may contribute to symptoms of SAD.

On a positive note, treatment options are available and generally simple. Some individuals with a mild case of SAD may benefit from increasing their exposure to light and reducing their stress. Light boxes have also been shown to diminish the symptoms of SAD. For others, medication and counseling may be more appropriate.

Your Employee Assistance Program can assist you in recognizing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Call Alegent Health EAP at (402) 398-5566 or (888) 847-4975 for more information or to meet with an EAP professional. Also, our website, www.alegenteap.com provides further information regarding this topic.