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It’s that time of year, when summer days are behind, the school bell has rung and the air begins to grow cool and crisp with the scent of fall. For many people, the shorter days and diminishing sunlight can do more than limit their outdoor activities.

When Norman Rosenthal moved from South Africa to New York City for his psychiatric residency at Columbia University, he at first was elated. It was summer; his hopes and energy were high. As winter neared, he began to notice a change in himself.

“But after the Daylight Savings Time changed, suddenly a sort of fear hit me that first day when the afternoon was dark so early,” Rosenthal said. “And then winter came. And suddenly I had a sluggishness and a lethargy, and a difficulty creating and producing that I had not experienced before. I thought, ‘What on earth is this?’ And then spring came and things improved, unaccountably.”

In his later research at the National Institute of Health, he joined a group that was studying such phenomena, as well as the role light played. Dr. Rosenthal was the first to describe and name Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

During summer months, when days are long and light is plentiful, things seem bright and go along fine. Sometimes, as days grow shorter in late fall with winter approaching, energy can dissipate and worries start to take hold.

As winter sets in, some people can find themselves:  becoming irritable; tired and with low energy; having difficulty getting along with others; feeling hypersensitive to rejection; having a sense of heavy weightiness in their arms or legs; oversleeping; or experiencing appetite changes that can leave them craving foods high in carbohydrates and gaining weight.

These are all symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

How can someone know if what he or she is experiencing isn’t just a mood that will pass on its own?

“With SAD, the pattern repeats itself over time,” says Katrina Christie, M.Ed., LCPC. “In the spring, as the sun brings more light and longer days, the feelings of lethargy, irritability and weightiness seem to resolve of their own accord.”

“It’s normal to have off days, and everyone feels down sometimes. But if days stretch into weeks or months over time, and it’s difficult to be motivated to do things that are typically enjoyable, it may be time to seek help,” Christie added.  “This is especially true if there is a change in sleep patterns or appetite, or if alcohol begins to be a source of comfort and relaxation.”

Click here to learn more about how to treat SAD.