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Managing SAD in Iowa’s uncertain weather

With record-breaking temperatures dropping to below 30 with snow on the ground, much of central and northern Iowa has become a dismal place to spend the month of April—especially for people with seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a recurring type of depression where a person experiences the same symptoms as major depressive disorder during a specific season, most typically during winter. These symptoms include having low energy, feeling depressed or hopeless, problems with sleeping, difficulty concentrating and even thoughts of suicide and death. 

Several factors are believed to be involved in contributing to SAD during the winter season, with a main one being less sunlight due to shorter days. 

Other risk factors include gender (it tends to affect women more than men), age, physical distance from the equator and family history of depression. Additionally, if a person already has a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder, it’s possible their symptoms could worsen during the dreary winter months. 

While SAD most often affects people during winter, about one in 10 people with SAD experience it during the summertime. Symptoms for summertime SAD include loss of appetite, insomnia, weight loss and anxiety. 

The causes for summertime SAD aren’t quite clear as clear, however, the oppressive summer heat is a common factor believed to contribute to it. Since summer often means a schedule change due to school being out, and days lasting longer than in winter, doctors believe that disruption may also play a role. 

Financial stress may also be involved because people tend to spend more in the summer. Summer is also a time when people may be more anxious about their body image when they wear less clothing or bathing suits. 

Fortunately, there are ways to treat SAD. 

One common treatment for winter SAD is called light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a device called a light box first thing in the mornings. The light box emits a bright, artificial light that acts as a replacement for reduced sunlight during winter. The light from the box, which is usually much brighter than normal artificial lighting, causes a chemical change in the brain affecting mood. 

People with more severe symptoms of SAD for either season may also benefit from prescription medications such as antidepressants that are also used in treating major depressive disorder. 

Talking with a cognitive behavioral therapist can also help people with SAD identify negative thoughts and behaviors that may worsen their symptoms and learn healthy ways to manage their mental health.

As the weather in Iowa tentatively begins to shift toward warmer springtime conditions, the majority of Iowans who suffer from seasonal affective disorder will hopefully begin to feel relief from their symptoms. 

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