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Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder: What are GAD and SAD?

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Hint: They're not some fun new comedy duo.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly, SAD) are two conditions with similar abbreviations, but very different symptoms.

As with many mental or emotional disorders, they often go hand-in-hand with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) but can also stand alone, like an episode of the (appropriately anxiety-inducing) anthology Black Mirror.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is exactly what it sounds like: a clinical case of anxiety.

We all have anxiety: stagefright, worrying about our children and whether or not our date will ever call is again are all common forms of anxiety, and don't necessarily indicate a disorder. For those with GAD, the anxiety is less rational.

Constant worrying, either about something specific--like something terrible happening to our kids--or a just a general nagging fear that something horrible is lurking, is the most common symptom of GAD. But symptoms can also be more obscure, highly subjective and seemingly ridiculous.

The most perplexing symptom of GAD I experience personally is that I hate making phone calls--presumably because I don't like "bothering" people, even when it's their job to be bothered by me, like the appointment desk at the dentist's office. I say "presumably" because I really don't know why my aversion to making phone calls is so intrusive; I only know that if I can get away with it, I will avoid it at all costs.

GAD can cause anxiety attacks (also known as panic attacks), which manifest as dizziness, lightheadedness, shaking or tremors, numbness in the extremities (my hands will clench into clawlike fists, very creepy), muscle spasms (my left leg will sometimes become nearly paralyzed) shortness of breath, and a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability.

Perhaps the worst part of a panic attack is that you often have to just ride it out. The harder you try to stop it, the worse the symptoms become.

The good news is that there are coping techniques (breathing exercises being one of the most effective) and medications that can control symptoms of panic and anxiety. (Pro tip: If you are on an anti-anxiety medication, do not skip it. That's a great way to induce a purely physical panic attack due to withdrawal.)

Panic attacks can be triggered by something specific--like the aforementioned constant worry about or children--or they can seem to come out of nowhere, and they can happen at any time with no warning.

Let me reiterate: worrying about your children is not in itself a disorder. GAD elevates worry to irrational levels, and that example is just a really good one, because it's perhaps the most common and most debilitating.

For example, most of us feel nervous putting our kids on the school bus and letting it drive off without us; for those with GAD, it could trigger a full-blown panic attack. However, this is true of anything that can cause anxiety in any given individual's life.

A good rule of thumb: if you can reason your anxiety away (or least to where it's manageable), you're probably in the clear. If anxiety is controlling you instead of the other way around, you might want to address that with your doctor.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, while no less life altering and debilitating, is slightly easier to summarize: it's a form of clinical depression that is brought on or worsened by the fall and winter months.

The days get shorter, the nights longer, causing physical changes--primarily a shortage or near lack of vitamin D in the system--and emotional ones--long periods of darkness, lower temperatures and an increase in precipitation can lead to inexplicable feelings of sadness and a lack of motivation to be productive.

I don't "officially" have SAD, because I have not been formally diagnosed with it. But I certainly display the symptoms.

For me, though, it's kind of weird: I love the early evenings. I love closing the blinds and turning the lights on; it makes a home feel cozier to me.

But I hate late, dark mornings. In North Dakota, it would stay dark until 8AM in the depths of winter (on top of the snow on the ground and the sub-zero temps). In five and a half years living there, I never got used to that.

Like with any disorder, there are ways to cope. Many people with SAD will tell you a daylight lamp can make a world of difference. It mimics the effects of sunlight, and sitting with one for as little as twenty minutes a day can be hugely helpful in controlling the effects of SAD.

While it's quite often a package deal, MDD doesn't always come along with GAD or SAD, and vice versa. If you think something's just not quite right, talk to your doctor. It can be really hard to go to a medical professional simply to say, in essence, "I feel sad." But sometimes, "I feel sad" can mean something serious.

And nobody deserves the living nightmare that is untreated depression and its friends.

If "I feel sad" is an understatement, and you or someone you know is in danger of hurting themselves, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at


But if all you need is a chat with a friend, come find me!

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