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Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a form of depression. It follows a particular pattern, and it is linked to the availability of natural light. Those who suffer from SAD experience depression during the winter months as the daylight hours are shortened. As winter gives way to spring and the days become longer, the symptoms of depression begin lifting on their own.

SAD can be distinguished from other forms of depression by the fact that it occurs only for a few months every year for a specific time. It does not affect a person for the rest of the year. The symptoms may be mild, affecting a person’s routine minimally or they may be severe and hamper a person in performing his day-to-day task.

A person’s physical makeup, environment, experiences, family history and chemistry of brain make some people more prone to SAD. It can affect children but it is most common in young adults. Females are more likely to suffer as compared to males. Those with a family history of depression or SAD are more easily affected.

Some people are more sensitive to variations in light and their hormonal production varies with it. The further they live from the equator and the higher the latitude, greater is their chance of developing SAD.

Causes

The occurrence of SAD can be explained logically. The brain’s response to decreased day light availability results in depression. The production of certain hormones by the brain is believed to be governed by exposure to daylight, although it seems to vary from person to person.

The two main chemicals which are associated with SAD are melatonin and serotonin and they occur naturally in the body. The production of serotonin increases with exposure to sunlight and low levels of this chemical cause depression. Melatonin on the other hand, is produced more when it is dark and is associated with sleep. When more melatonin is produced, a person feels lethargic and sleepy.

In winter, the days are shorter and darkness hours are longer. This causes melatonin levels to increase and serotonin levels to decrease, which may lead to depression.

Symptoms
  • A person has low levels of energy and feels tired for no reason.
  • He loses interest in things he usually enjoys. He feels guilty for neglecting tasks or does not feel satisfied with what he is able to do.
  • He becomes unable to take criticism and gets upset easily. His mood changes often, ranging from a feeling of sadness to irritability to hopelessness. This mood may last for a fortnight.
  • He starts sleeping more and finds it difficult to wake up in the morning.
  • He may find it difficult to concentrate. This affects schoolwork and the child will have trouble in bringing himself to do her assignments.
  • She will binge and overeat in the winter months preferring starchy and sugary foods, resulting in weight gain.
  • Socializing and playing games will be low on her list.
Treatment

Many therapies and treatments are available and the choice of one over the other depends upon the severity of the symptoms.

Increasing light exposure may be sufficient for those with mild symptoms. They may disappear when the availability of light increases so treatment can be to spend more time outside in the daylight. The child will be advised to take a walk daily, play games or exercise outdoor. Indoors full spectrum light bulbs which duplicate daylight can be used in the winter months.

Psychotherapy or talk therapy is used to change negative thoughts and a sense of loneliness. It helps a person to understand his condition and devise strategies to minimize future attacks.

Phototherapy or light therapy is used for symptoms that are more persistent. A special light box is placed on a table and the person sits in front of it for 45 minutes or so daily. He has to glance at the light occasionally so that light is absorbed through the retinas. Improvement can be seen in a week.

Pharmacotherapy or medication is used with the other two therapies. A doctor will prescribe anti depressant medicines to regulate neurotransmitters in the brain which have an effect on mood.

When children are diagnosed with SAD, parents can help by explaining in a simple way what SAD is. They can encourage the child to exercise and spend time outdoors. They can take walks together. Parents can spend extra time with the child so that the child is not alone and feels loved and cared for. Be patient with the child and make allowances for his mood swings. Help with his homework and talk to his teachers so that they are aware of the child’s problem. Give your child vegetables, fruits and whole grains instead of sugary and starchy stuff. Ask your child to follow a regular bedtime so that he gets enough sleep and is out during the day.