The moodiness and fatigue people feel during the fall and winter months isn’t just the “winter blues,” but rather a treatable condition known as seasonal affective disorder, according to an Omaha psychologist. 

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a subtype of depression that's related to changes in the seasons, according to the Mayo Clinic. For those diagnosed with SAD, it begins and ends at the same time, usually starting in the fall and ending in the spring, although SAD can cause depression in the spring or early summer. 

The disorder, according to Dr. Rebecca Henning, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum and current psychologist in Omaha, consists of symptoms such as oversleeping, appetite changes, weight gain and fatigue. 

Lucy Koenig, a freshman biochemistry major, said that at the start of June every year, her anxiety kicks in knowing that October is approaching, which is when her SAD begins. 

“I have a general feeling of being a little bit hopeless,” Koenig said. “I'm uncomfortable because of the cold and I just, like, kind of curl up into myself, and I become a lot less social and a lot less motivated.” 

For Koenig, she said just trying to get outside and go for a run isn’t enough to lessen the effects of SAD due to the lack of serotonin she can produce in the winter months.

“Research indicates that people with SAD may have reduced activity of the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) serotonin, which helps regulate mood,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

To combat the effects of SAD, Koenig said she uses a therapy lamp for 15 minutes in the morning each day while she reads or does homework. Henning said she believes this tactic is useful in decreasing the toll SAD takes on individuals. 

Other treatments include medication, such as antidepressants, and psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, according to Henning, both of which Koenig says are helpful for her when dealing with SAD. 

Another important aspect of treatment, according to Koenig, is people being kind to themselves. 

“Just being gentle with yourself during this time, which is something that's taken me a while to learn,” Koenig said. “It's about understanding that you're going through a tough time, and, yes, other people might not understand it, but you know what's going on.”

This exacerbation of sadness creates mental exhaustion during the winter months, according to Koenig. She said that the toll from such an extended period of time isn’t talked about enough when individuals discuss SAD. 

Henning said SAD is often underdiagnosed because people brush it off as the “winter blues,” and if not treated appropriately it can lead to serious consequences. 

“As with other types of depression, if it's not treated, it can get worse and it can lead to problems, like school or work problems, and social withdrawal,” Henning said. “A complication of seasonal affective disorder can be substance abuse, because sometimes people use substances to cope with it if they don't get the proper treatment.”

Henning noted that it's good to get treatment when symptoms are first noticed before there is the chance they could worsen. She said it is important to take SAD seriously and not treat it as something an individual needs to work through on their own. 

“The main thing people should know about seasonal affective disorder is it's treatable,” Henning said. “And it's not something you have to tough out on your own.”


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