Autumn is, hands down, my favorite season. The spring rains are over, the blistering heat of summer is past, and winter’s frozen fingers haven’t yet snared me in their grasp.
I love watching the foliage change from green to orange to yellow. I love the smell of burning leaves. And I love the anticipation of our family getting loud and boisterous around the Thanksgiving table.
As a woman who’s endured hot flashes for three decades, I live for the cool days of “sweater weather.” My idea of a perfect afternoon is wrapping myself in a cardigan and watching squirrels chase each other through the trees while I sway back and forth on the porch swing. I don’t even mind listening to my husband grouse about the never-ending chore of raking and mulching because it’s all part of this magical season.
There are those, though, who do not share my enthusiasm for this time of year. A long time ago, I was going on and on about the beauty of fall, and a friend of mine made it abundantly clear that she absolutely hated everything about it. In her words, autumn was the gateway to “death, dying, and destruction.” When I asked what on earth she was talking about, she explained that it was because fall led to winter. And for her, winter was nothing short of abysmal. While I thought her assessment seemed a bit harsh, there was no doubt she was dead serious.
That was my first real experience with the depth and severity of seasonal affective disorder. Up to that point, I didn’t realize the changing of the seasons could have such a negative impact on a person’s emotional well-being. For those folks, it’s a real struggle to make it through to the other side where they can once again feel the hope and promise of springtime.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it isn’t uncommon for a lot of people to experience short-term mood changes when the daylight hours start getting shorter. Fall may very well lead them into what can be described as the “winter blues.” Luckily, their symptoms are rather low-level and abate naturally with the onset of spring when flowers begin to bloom, trees start to bud, and daylight hours gradually increase.
There are others, though, who don’t merely have the blues. Their unwelcome emotions significantly impair their ability to handle day-to-day life. What they’re likely dealing with in those instances is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression. When it comes to SAD, mood changes are more serious than simply feeling down, and they can have a severe effect on how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities.
Symptoms of SAD follow those of other major depressive disorders. Changes in appetite, sleeping excessively, low energy, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty concentrating are just a few of these symptoms.
Without getting too science-y – which I couldn’t if I tried – it appears that SAD is induced by low levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood. Also, while serotonin may be too low, melatonin – a brain hormone that causes our bodies to become sleepy – may be too high. And from what I’ve read, SAD sufferers are generally people who experience other types of mental disorders as well, such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Whether that’s always the case, I don’t know. I just know SAD is a tough row to hoe.
If you notice a negative change in your emotions at this time of year, and you suspect it’s more than just the winter blues, please seek the advice of your doctor with regard to diagnosis and treatment. Light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, antidepressants, and/or Vitamin D may help alleviate some, if not all, of SAD’s symptoms.
Until my friend so bluntly laid it all out for me, I had no idea what a downer autumn and winter could be for some people. I’ve never dreaded the onset of falling leaves, snow-covered roofs, and icicle-draped branches. That means I’m extremely fortunate to be able to add “I don’t suffer from SAD” to my long, long list of blessings.
Sadly – no pun intended – I’ve learned that not everyone is that lucky.