Seasonal Affective Disorder and Its Interaction with Complex Trauma

In the last article in this series of four posts written for the CPTSD Foundation on seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and complex trauma, we examined together with the definitions and each of their symptoms.

As a short recap, seasonal affective disorder is a form of major depression that affects people in the wintertime, although it can also strike in spring. For our purposes, we shall concentrate on wintertime SAD.

Complex trauma is repeated abuse or neglect, usually in childhood, committed against survivors whose symptoms linger long into adulthood.    

This article shall delve deeper into how seasonal affective disorder and complex relational trauma affect how we feel and function when the days grow dark and cold.

The Reemergence of Symptoms

The reemergence of major depressive symptoms, anxiety, and flashbacks brought on by SAD is not uncommon in the dark and dreary months of winter. It is as though with the leaves falling, so does the mood of those living in the shadow of complex trauma. Symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder are exacerbated by seasonal affective disorder making wintertime a living hell for some survivors.

Once again, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are as follows:

  • Tendency to oversleep
  • Weight gain
  • A drop in energy levels
  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

These symptoms are devastating to the lives of those who experience them, changing their lives, and causing a disruption in how well people with SAD symptoms can function in everyday tasks.

What Does It Feel Like to Experience SAD for a Survivor of Complex Trauma?

This author has first-hand experience with both seasonal affective disorder and complex trauma. Both have changed my life forever.

It is tough for me and other survivors who are dealing with both to know that we will be literally fighting for our lives every fall and during the winter. Not everyone experiences life-threatening symptoms, but some of us do. SAD robs us of our ability to be social, work efficiently, and have the energy even for our families.

Seasonal affective disorder causes complex trauma symptoms to surface, sometimes forcefully, such as flashbacks and anxiety that come from seemingly nowhere. However, the worst symptom must be the deep and powerful sense of anguish that washes over us at times and then is gone. This bath in anguish may not last long, but it has a devastating effect none the less.

Some of us feel the effects of seasonal affective disorder at a much deeper level, and thoughts of suicide enter our minds. To my fellow survivors who also suffer from SAD in the dark days of winter, hang on; brighter days will come.

If you or someone you love feels suicidal, please, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the toll-free TTY number 1-800-799-4TTY (4889). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

Causes for SAD

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, scientists aren’t fully aware of SAD’s causes, although several theories exist. One theory proposes that people with seasonal affective disorder may have a reduction in the brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called Serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate mood, and researchers believe that sunlight controls the molecules’ levels that manage normal serotonin levels. 

Since it is much darker in winter, researchers suggested that people with SAD have lowered Serotonin levels.

As an interesting side note, the lowered serotonin levels may also explain why people have a hard time overeating during the winter. Overeating may occur because our brains are trying to get more Serotonin.

Another theory states that people with seasonal affective disorder have too much melatonin in winter, a hormone that is important for maintaining normal sleep/wake patterns. This overproduction of melatonin can cause increased sleepiness and lethargy.

A third theory has to do with deficits of vitamin D. Vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin activity. The body produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on the skin, and with daylight being limited, people with lowered vitamin D may further decrease their serotonin levels.

Complex Trauma as a Cause for SAD 

Although it is impossible to tell if complex trauma is a root cause of the physical changes that cause seasonal affective disorder, it is indeed enhanced by it. People who have experienced complex trauma quite frequently are in a position where even a slight change in their brains’ neurotransmitters can cause devastating effects.

The brains of people healing from complex trauma are already overtaxed with dealing with past hurts and bruises. Depression is a common feature, and flashbacks are a matter of course.

The brains of survivors have been inexplicably altered forever by the stress hormones that flowed through their bodies when they were children. These chemicals changed the shape and size of survivors’ brains, leaving them open to many different physical and mental ailments.

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder      

There are treatments available to lessen the suffering of those who live with SAD. These treatments fall into four categories that can be used alone or together as a regime.

  • Light therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Antidepressants
  • Vitamin D

Let us examine each one in turn.

Light Therapy. Light therapy is the primary treatment for seasonal affective disorder to expose those affected by it to bright light every day in exchange for the diminished sunshine in winter. Light therapy tricks the brain into believing it is a bright sunny day helping it to make more Serotonin and thus relieving, in theory at least, the symptoms of SAD.

The treatment includes the affected person sitting in front of a very bright lightbox (10,000 lux) each day for 30-45 minutes first thing in the morning from fall to spring. These lightboxes are twenty times brighter than usual indoor lighting and filter out potentially harmful UV light, making it safe unless you have certain eye diseases or take certain medications.

Psychotherapy. CBT has been adapted for people suffering from SAD and is used to help those living with SAD to overcome and cope with difficult situations. Typically, CBT is conducted in two weekly group meetings for 6 weeks, and the focus is upon replacing negative thoughts relating to winter with positive ones.

CBT also uses behavioral activation to help those with SAD schedule enjoyable indoor or outdoor activities to fight the loss of interest that sufferers often experience during the winter months.

Antidepressants.  As we have seen, Seasonal affective disorder is a form of major depressive disorder and is associated with problems with Serotonin’s production. Antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) can treat SAD when symptoms occur.

Vitamin D. Many people with SAD have a vitamin D deficiency, and so many folks opt to try and treat SAD by taking vitamin D nutritional supplements. However, researchers tested whether vitamin D is effective for treating seasonal affective disorder found mixed results in studies conducted, with some results indicating it is just as effective as light therapy and other researchers finding it had no effect on SAD.

Some Words of Hope

If you are suffering from the effects of SAD, do not give up hope. New research is being conducted every year. They may find a better way to control SAD or prevent it from occurring. 

No matter what, we here at CPTSD Foundation stand steadfastly behind you and will be here to uplift you when you are feeling down. Please remember to contact us if you need to talk or need information, and we will do our very best to get back to you.

We care about you and want to ease your burdens as much as possible, especially during the hard, dark, dreary days of winter.

“Don’t ever lose hope. Even when life seems bleak and hopeless, know that you are not alone.” ~ Nancy Reagan 

“We’re all in this together. It’s okay, to be honest. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to say you’re stuck, or that you’re haunted, or that you can’t begin to let go. We can all relate to those things. Screw the stigma that says otherwise. Break the silence and break the cycle, for you are more than just your pain. You are not alone.” ~ Jamie Tworkowski 

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