Many people struggle with short periods of their lives when they feel sad or depressed. However, some individuals feel this way every year when the seasons transition between fall and winter.
It may be perfectly normal to feel a little down when the cool weather arrives and days are shorter, which is why these feelings are sometimes called the ‘winter blues.’ However, some individuals experience not just mild symptoms but extreme mood changes that can impact how they feel and think. These people may have seasonal affective disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a type of depression or mood disorder marked by a regular seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months of the year, usually during the fall and winter months. The signs and symptoms of SAD are remarkably similar to those of major depressive disorder or other types of depressive disorders. Shared symptoms include:
- Feelings of depression most days
- Loss of interest in activities one previously enjoyed
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Problems with sleep
- Having low energy and feeling sluggish or agitated
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
People with SAD who feel depressed in the winter may also oversleep, overeat, experience weight gain, and avoid social situations. Seasonal affective disorder can also be felt during the spring and summer. Summer depression is marked by insomnia, a poor appetite, restlessness, anxiety, and instances of violent behavior.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Healthcare professionals do not fully understand what causes SAD. However, research shows there may be a connection between SAD and reduced serotonin levels. Serotonin helps regulate moods. Sunlight controls the molecules in the brain that help maintain normal serotonin levels.
However, this process does not work for those with SAD. Additionally, people with SAD often produce too much melatonin, which maintains a proper sleep cycle, and too little vitamin D. Serotonin and melatonin maintain the body’s rhythm. They are connected to the seasonal changes in day length.
SAD is also more common in women than men and for those living further north, where there is less daylight in the winter. Additionally, those with other mental illnesses, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia, among others, are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD. There may also be a genetic component, as SAD can sometimes run in certain families.
Treatment Options for Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are multiple ways to treat SAD. The primary methods include:
Medication: SAD is a type of depression associated with disruptions in serotonin production; it can be treated with antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
While medications can be effective, particularly during the fall and winter months, for winter depression, they can have side effects. Therefore, patients must consult their physician before taking any medication to be fully aware of the potential side effects.
Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps with coping skills. However, it can also be adapted to help those with SAD. Generally, individuals would meet with a therapist and focus on replacing the negative thoughts and associations with winter with more positive ones.
This strategy can also incorporate behavioral activation by helping individuals determine ways to enjoy outdoor activities during the fall and winter.
Light Therapy: Light therapy has been used to treat SAD since the 1980s. This technique exposes individuals with SAD to bright light daily to compensate for the loss of daylight during the winter. This treatment generally requires that an individual stays in front of a bright light box for between thirty and forty-five minutes a day.
These boxes provide about twenty times brighter light than standard indoor lighting. Additionally, they filter out harmful UV rays to ensure that the treatment is safe.
Vitamin D: Since many of those with SAD are vitamin D deficient, supplements can help improve symptoms for some individuals.
If you think you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, it’s vital to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can work with you to determine the best treatment options to minimize this disorder’s symptoms.