Diagnosing & Treating Back to School Seasonal Affective Disorder
Back-to-school season can spark a flurry of emotions ranging from excitement at facing fresh challenges and making new friends to fatigue when it comes to early morning wake-ups and staring down mountains of paperwork. While a new school year can be overwhelming, the change in routine can also be a red flag. If your child’s mood changes for longer than just a few days, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) could be the culprit.
This form of depression is attributed to the shift of seasons and tends to flare up as sunlight diminishes. Though most people think it begins closer to the onset of winter, doctors warn that the arrival of autumn and the start of the school year can trigger the disorder. (1) Read on to learn more about the symptoms and treatment of SAD.
What Causes SAD
While scientists don’t know exactly what causes the condition that’s categorized by lethargy and difficulty concentrating, it’s believed to be linked to hormonal changes brought about by the change in seasons. For example, the body produces melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles, in larger quantities as the days grow shorter and darker, causing us to crave more shut-eye. Meanwhile, serotonin levels, which we associate with feelings of happiness and well-being, decrease as we limit exposure to sunlight, giving way to depression. (2)
Who Suffers From SAD
It’s estimated that six percent of the population experiences symptoms associated with SAD. Though the disorder typically affects older teens and young adults in their early 20s, children and younger teens can suffer from it as well. As with other forms of depression, girls or women are approximately four times more likely to develop SAD than their male counterparts. (3)
And just like other types of depression, brain chemistry, family history, environment, and life circumstances may make some individuals more prone to the disorder than others.
Know the Signs
How do you know if you or your child are simply having a hard time getting back in the groove or if you should be more concerned? Here are some symptoms associated with the condition you may want to watch for, particularly if they persist for two weeks or longer:
- Sudden changes in mood: Irritability, sadness, lack of enjoyment, getting upset or crying easily
- Changes in sleep patterns: Trouble waking, feelings of fatigue or exhaustion
- Changes in diet: Overeating and craving comfort foods such as carbohydrates and sugary snacks, weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating: Lack of focus or motivation, taking longer to complete tasks
- Less interest in socializing: Loss of desire to spend time with friends or attend extracurricular activities
If you or your child are exhibiting symptoms associated with SAD, there are multiple treatment options available. For those with a mild case, spending time outdoors before or after school can be enough to do the trick. Light therapy, involving sitting several feet away from a bright light for short periods, has been known to alleviate symptoms; in particular, for those with more severe cases.
Meanwhile, following a bedtime and wake-up routine can also be helpful; in addition to sticking with a healthy diet.
But what if symptoms continue beyond a two-week period and common treatment options are not working? In this case, consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional. They can make a proper diagnosis and rule out other, more serious medical conditions. Back-to-school season can be exhausting, but it shouldn’t be debilitating.