Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects people during the winter months.
Approximately 6% of U.S. residents experience SAD. As many as 14% more have winter depression that exhibits some of the same symptoms as SAD but to a lesser degree. If you notice that you have negative thoughts or other mood disorder symptoms during the fall and winter months, then you might want to learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There are many different types of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder is one type. People who experience this type of depression have many of the same symptoms as people with major depression.
SAD is a form of major depression. However, the symptoms only occur during the winter months. The symptoms begin to occur as the seasons change to fall and winter. As the sun starts to set sooner, and there are fewer daylight hours, people with SAD begin to feel depressed.
What Causes SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder has been linked with a lack of daylight. Reduced daylight hours may lead to:
- A change in your sleep-wake cycle that dysregulates your sleep, mood, and appetite. Your body wants to rest at different times than usual but your schedule goes on as normal, creating a disconnect that impacts mood.
- Increased melatonin production which decreases energy and increases a desire for more sleep.
- Reduced serotonin production, leading to changes in your brain chemistry.
These are educated guesses as to what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder. Science hasn’t quite caught up with the condition so we aren’t entirely certain, yet. There does seem to be a genetic link for SAD; you’re more likely to experience it if a family member has had SAD.
Women, particularly those in their twenties, are more likely to get a SAD diagnosis than others.
Recognizing Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Depression are the same as major depression and many other types of depression:
- Reduced energy levels throughout the day but especially in the morning; people with SAD often find it hard to wake up and start the day during the winter months
- Changes in eating habits; usually people with SAD crave sweets and starches. They eat more often and in higher quantities than during the spring and summer. Therefore, they have winter weight gain.
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Feelings of sadness, guilt, tension, and /or stress
- Hopelessness / worthlessness
- Irritability or agitation
- Loss of interest in activities including less desire to spend time with loved ones or doing hobbies they usually enjoy; loss of interest in physical touch
- Suicidal thoughts or actions; general thoughts about death
The differences between major depression and Seasonal Affective Depression include:
- The symptoms are cyclical; they begin every fall or winter and last approximately five months, easing up when longer daylight hours resume in the spring; the symptoms may not occur every year but when they do occur it’s during the winter months
- Individuals with SAD often feel like they are “not themselves” during the winter months, identifying with the energy and enthusiasm that they have during the spring and summer
Do note that some people experience SAD symptoms throughout the year because they live in places where it is dark and/or cloudy more often.
Additionally, there is such a thing as Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder that affects a smaller percentage of the population during the summer months.
Dealing With “Winter Depression”
Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just the “winter blues.” It’s a winter depression, and you should take it seriously as such.
You don’t have to suffer with the symptoms. There are Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments that can help relieve those symptoms. Some of the most common treatments include:
Many people take antidepressants to help ease the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Depression. Since serotonin reduction is one likely cause of SAD, SSRIs often help. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist if this is an option that interests you.
You might also want to review the impact of any other medications that you take with your doctor. If they tend to increase sleepiness, then they may worsen symptoms of SAD.
Light Box Therapy:
This is one of the most common Seasonal Affective Depression treatments. You purchase a light box that helps to provide you with the sunlight that you’re missing during the winter months.
The bright light, which is significantly brighter than regular indoor light, replicates some of that missing sunshine. Typically, a person sits in front of the light box for 20-50 minutes per day, often first thing in the morning.
It is common in people with SAD to use light therapy treatments every single day throughout the fall and winter months.
Most people can safely try light box therapy. However, if you’re sensitive to light, have eye conditions, or take certain medications, they it may be contraindicated. Therefore, you want to talk to your doctor before you use light therapy to treat SAD.
Because SAD is linked with levels of sunlight, it may be worse for people who have a Vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, supplementing your diet with Vitamin D may assist you.
Although winter depression makes you crave sweets and starches, it can help a lot to stick to a healthy diet. In fact, general self-care is one of the best things that you can do for yourself when you experience SAD symptoms.
It’s hard to get the right sleep, nutrition, exercise, and work-life balance as you cope with depression. But doing so can make a huge difference in symptoms and side effects. Here are some additional tips to manage the symptoms.
Talk Therapy and SAD
Like with any form of depression, talking to a mental health professional can help. Oftentimes SAD symptoms get exacerbated by all of the stress of the holiday season. Therefore, working through those stressors with a professional can go a long way towards relieving the pain.
Additionally, there are forms of therapy that have been specifically adapted for Seasonal Affective Depression treatment. For example, a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called CBT-SAD exists.
Interested in talk therapy for SAD? Our therapists have experience with mood disorder treatment including suggestions for Seasonal Affective Disorder treatments. Contact us today for a consultation to see if we can help relieve your winter depression.