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What To Know About Preemptive Seasonal Affective Disorder

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What To Know About Preemptive Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Calling all the summer-loving people out there: If you’re having a hard time right now, it’s totally understandable. In fact, you might be going through a form of preemptive seasonal affective disorder.

As summer winds down and September turns into full-blown fall, you might be feeling wistfulness, sadness, even depression. (All those fall fanatics… who are they?) Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, MD, one of the original researchers who published on the phenomenon of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), says anticipating feelings of depression that you experience in winter can be enough to preemptively trigger some of those same feelings in late summer or early fall.


Experts In This Article

  • Norman Rosenthal, MD, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and a leading expert in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

“The brain is an amazing thing in terms of anticipating,” Dr. Rosenthal says.

For example, Dr. Rosenthal is allergic to cats—and even seeing a picture of a cat can make him start sneezing. “The brain has kind of programmed me to recognize that stimulus or cue as one that causes certain kinds of bodily responses,” he says.

Dr. Rosenthal has observed this phenomenon with patients, too: “[Patients] would say, every time I see those fall ads or mufflers or scarves or autumn colors or autumn leaves, it depresses me, because it makes me anxious because I know what’s coming.”

There could be something biological happening, too. As the days shorten in late summer and early fall, you could start experiencing light deprivation—which causes SAD in the wintertime—much earlier than you might think. Dr. Rosenthal has even experienced this confusing set of emotions himself.

“I wake up now in the morning and I’m kind of feeling what I call a ‘light hunger,’” he says. “I was standing outside and thinking, this is really paradoxical. There are trees blooming and the flowers are blooming, and here I am hungry for the light.”

The anticipation and the lack of light could be working in concert in your subconscious—lower levels of light exposure could be making you feel preemptively anxious about the coming winter, in a way that might be difficult to recognize.

“Nobody comes with a sign saying you’re feeling anxious because the light is getting less,” Dr. Rosenthal says. “One often misinterprets what’s going on, so you can get a biological anxiety triggered.”

The best way to hedge against anticipatory anxiety is preparation, preparation, preparation. Take walks as early as you can in the morning to get the most potent sunlight, and Dr. Rosenthal suggests getting a light box/light therapy lamp in early fall, and making sure there’s a part of your house where you can soak up the light. Knowing you have the tools to combat wintertime SAD can help make the end of summer feel less heavy.

“If you know how to handle it, it’s tremendously empowering and the whole fear of the winter coming on or anxiety around it is diminished,” Dr. Rosenthal says.

That said, if early fall is a tough time of year for you, know that you’re not alone.

“I think the scope of people who could use more light as the days get shorter is much greater than what we widely recognize.” Dr. Rosenthal says. So make the most of the waning rays, and try to imbue the future months with excitement, something to look forward to, and plenty of light, too.

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