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Seasonal Affective Disorder

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By Megan Obert Big Sky Counseling Clinic

This time of year our exposure to daylight decreases until Dec. 21, the winter solstice, when daylight starts to increase again.

Research indicates sunlight exposure levels can negatively impact a person’s mood, because sunlight affects serotonin levels. Serotonin, a chemical in the brain that helps regulate mood, is found to be lower in people who suffer from depression. People show higher serotonin levels on sunny days than on darker days, indicating that decreased light can increase chances of depression.

If you find yourself feeling moody or depressed during winter months and happier in spring, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Almost half a million people experience this each winter between September and April. SAD occurs more frequently in women than men, and people typically start to show symptoms between ages 18 and 30.

Symptoms of SAD usually build up in the late autumn and early winter and are similar to other forms of depression. They may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of energy, oversleeping, irritability, restlessness, social withdrawal and increased appetite. These symptoms can range in intensity depending on a person’s susceptibility to depression and where he or she lives.

If you experience symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, you don’t have to tough it out until spring – there are options to help elevate your mood.

First, spend time outdoors in the sunlight. Participating in physical exercise while outdoors will also help increase your energy and manage other symptoms of depression. In addition, making sure you’re eating nutritiously and getting enough sleep is recommended, both of which are often overlooked in terms of their importance.

Another option is to purchase a phototherapy box, or light box. A light box mimics natural light from the sun and can produce the same chemical changes in your brain as sunlight. Phototherapy boxes are generally used 30 minutes a day and require you to sit near the light with your eyes open.

Light therapy may be effective on its own, but in more serious cases, is most effective when combined with antidepressant medication and counseling.

If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and are interested in counseling, or if you have questions or concerns about SAD, the MSU Human Development Clinic is available to help. Call (406) 570-3907.

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