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Seasonal Affective Disorder Is More Than The 'Winter Blahs'

Many people find it difficult to work, exercise and socialize this time of year due to a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

While the acronym might seem droll, experts say it's a serious condition that could require professional medical help to combat.

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Credit Guilia Donato
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Guilia Donato says taking her goldendoodle Murphy for walks helps her mange her Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Allegheny Health Network psychiatrist Dr. Alicia Kaplan said SAD is triggered by a lack of light during the fall and winter months. It’s not clear exactly why increased darkness causes this mood disorder, but serotonin levels and abnormalities in circadian rhythms might play a role.

“[People with SAD are] more sluggish, they may not want to go out in social situations,” said Kaplan. “They may be more isolative. They're not doing things like exercising or socializing like they had been.”

Individuals suffering from SAD also might experience insomnia, as well as increased irritability and appetite, especially for carbohydrates.

Research shows that 5 percent of the population struggles with SAD in any given year. One of those individuals is Guilia Donato, a casino administrator in Pittsburgh.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Donato. “You want to distance yourself from people and regular activities that you [usually] feel happy and excited to do.”

Donato is starting an MBA program at Point Park University in January and said she realized she needed to see a doctor to get healthy before going back to school. She said that yoga, meditation and walking her dog all help her manage her SAD.

“It’s OK to swallow your pride and get help,” said Donato. “You don’t want to feel like this.”

Treatments for SAD include regular exercise, a good sleep schedule, talk therapy, medications and bright light therapy, which incorporates light boxes. If someone is contemplating suicide, Kaplan said they should seek medical attention immediately. 

Photo credit: marcus eubanks/Flickr 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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