As clocks turn back, seasonal affective disorder returns to NJ
This time last year, the lockdowns of the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic were still fresh in the minds of New Jerseyans when, after a vaccine-less summer, the weather began to get colder and people faced a long, isolated winter indoors.
That's not quite the case now in the fall of 2021, but after turning clocks back an hour over the weekend, many in the Garden State could soon be feeling the effects of seasonal affective disorder.
SAD is a diagnosable mental health disorder brought on by the shorter days and decreased sunlight this time of year, according to Dr. Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health & Addiction Agencies.
As diagnosed, it impacts only 4 to 6% of the U.S. population on average, although Wentz puts that figure closer to 10% in the mid-Atlantic region, and said about 1 in 5 people could experience a mild form.
A diagnosis of SAD is similar, but not identical, to clinical depression, and could and often does require treatment.
"There is help, and help and treatment are very effective, and so people should not think that it is only them, because this is very common," Wentz said.
Symptoms include fatigue, lack of interest in everyday activities, having to force oneself to do necessary chores, social withdrawal, and even difficulty getting out of bed.
With more exposure to darkness than light as the seasons change, Wentz said the hormone melatonin, which is also linked to depression, is produced at an increased level in the body.
"Some people have difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly and quickly, as they normally would, feelings of sadness, apathy, loss of feelings combined with irritability," she said.
SAD could be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, or even mono, or could be masking something else, and Wentz said the only way to know for sure is to consult with a doctor.
She said women are more likely than men to exhibit symptoms, and the age of onset is usually between 18 and 30 years old.
With regard to the relationship between last weekend's time change and SAD, Wentz compared it to jet lag, and said Circadian rhythms and biological clocks must reset.
That's harder to do when a person is used to a daily routine, which is why she said babies and pets may not face the same difficulties in adjusting as adults do.
Keeping a high-protein diet, and perhaps upping one's exercise regimen, are ways to head off some of the warning signs of seasonal affective disorder.
"There's very often an insatiable appetite for carbohydrates, and this results in weight gain, and this also can be depressing to people," Wentz said.
One of the most effective treatments for SAD, according to Wentz, is light therapy — exposure to high-intensity, artificial light, at regular intervals for several hours each day.
Something called a "dawn simulator" could also help a person better regulate their sleep and wake patterns, and planning winter vacations to warmer and brighter places can also work.
But as Wentz realizes not all of that may be possible, a more conventional option is available, and should be started before seasonal symptoms begin.
"Cognitive behavioral therapy helps change negative thoughts and behaviors, and that's proven to be as effective as light therapy," she said.
The happy thing about SAD, Wentz said, is that it eventually does dissipate with the arrival of spring.
She suggested that anyone potentially seeking treatment for seasonal affective disorder reach out to her organization at njamhaa.org for a list of resources.