What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that usually begins in the fall and continues until the springtime. It occurs because of the change in seasons, and although it’s less common, it can happen in the spring and summer months and resolve in the fall and winter months. SAD can happen by changes in your biological clock, melatonin production, and a decrease in Vitamin D. SAD affects women more than men and young adults compared to older adults. Your family history may also play a factor. Treatment includes light therapy, talk therapy, and medications. Seasonal affective disorder isn’t something you should ignore. As soon as you notice any symptoms, you should seek help right away. Symptoms start as mild and get more severe as the season goes on.

Signs and symptoms to look for include:

  1. Feeling sad/down most of the day, almost every day
  2. Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  3. Low energy
  4. Sleeping too much
  5. Changes in appetite or weight
  6. Feeling hopeless/worthless/agitated
  7. Difficulty concentrating
  8. Thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms specific to fall/winter-onset SAD include:

  1. Oversleeping
  2. Overeating (craving carbs more often)
  3. Weight gain
  4. Tired, don’t want to socialize

Symptoms specific to spring/summer-onset SAD include:

  1. Trouble sleeping
  2. Poor appetite
  3. Weight loss
  4. Restlessness/agitation/anxiety
  5. Increased irritability

If you have bipolar disorder, you’re at a higher risk of seasonal affective disorder. For people with bipolar disorder, you may experience symptoms of mania, anxiety, agitation, and irritability. You should see a doctor if you experience any combination of these symptoms for days at a time. If you aren’t motivated to do activities you usually enjoy, your sleep or eating habits have changed, you consume alcohol to feel better, and you feel like you’ve lost hope or contemplated suicide. Any of these symptoms should be an indicator to visit your doctor. When you visit your doctor, be prepared to answer questions on your mental health, medications you’re on, symptoms you have, any recent changes in your life, and if you have any questions.

It’s hard to find what causes SAD, but some things can factor into it

  1. Your circadian rhythm: Reduced sunlight in the fall and winter months can cause winter-onset SAD. A decrease in sunlight can lead to a disruption in your body’s internal clock and cause feelings of depression.
  2. Serotonin levels: The decrease in sunlight in the fall and winter months can cause a drop in serotonin, a chemical in the brain that affects your mood. This drop can also cause feelings of depression.
  3. Melatonin levels: The level of melatonin in your body during fall and winter can cause changes in your sleep patterns and mood.

Some factors can increase your risk of getting SAD

  1. Family history: You’re more likely to get SAD if you have a family with SAD or another form of depression.
  2. Depression/bipolar disorder: Depression symptoms may worsen during the fall and winter if you have major depression or bipolar disorder.
  3. Far north/south of the equator: SAD is more common in people that live far away from the equator. This cause can be from the reduced sunlight during the winter and longer days in the summer.
  4. Low Vitamin D: Not enough Vitamin D through sunlight or certain foods can cause a low level of Vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D can boost serotonin activity, and a drop in it can create feelings of depression.

Feelings of SAD can worsen and lead to other complications if left untreated. Some of these problems can include:

  1. Being less sociable
  2. Having trouble with work or school
  3. Drug/alcohol abuse
  4. Other mental health disorders like anxiety and eating disorders
  5. Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

There’s no known way to prevent seasonal affective disorder

You can prevent symptoms from worsening by beginning treatment before symptoms show up and continuing until after the symptoms usually go away. It can be difficult for your doctor to diagnose you with SAD because the symptoms are similar to other mental health conditions. An evaluation usually includes a physical exam, lab tests, and a psychological evaluation.

Treatment for SAD may include light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications

With light therapy, you sit a few feet away from a light box, exposing you to bright light within the first hour of waking up every day. Light therapy mimics natural light and can change the level of chemicals in your brain related to mood. Light therapy is one of the first options to treat SAD and causes very few side effects. Before starting light therapy, talk to your doctor about the best one to purchase and ask when and how to use a light therapy box. Psychotherapy can help treat symptoms of SAD as well. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you in many ways:

  1. Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, like reducing how much you avoid activities and making a schedule to do meaningful activities.
  2. Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that make you feel worse into positive ones that will make you feel better.
  3. Learn new ways to manage stress.
  4. Start healthy habits like exercising and improving your sleep patterns.

Lots of people benefit from antidepressant treatment

Your doctor may recommend taking antidepressants before your symptoms start and taking them until after the time of year your symptoms usually go away. With antidepressants, it may take several weeks to see results, and you might have to change medications a few times before you find the best one that offers the least amount of side effects.

You may even be able to treat SAD yourself with home remedies

  1. You can make your environment brighter by opening the blinds and keeping anything that blocks sunlight away from windows. Sitting closer to windows can also help.
  2. Go outside and take a walk even when it’s cold because the outdoor light can help, especially when you do this within two hours of waking up.
  3. Exercise and other forms of physical activities can help relieve stress and anxiety. Being healthier can make you feel better about yourself and make you feel happier.
  4. Start making your sleep schedule more normalized. Try going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. In the winter time avoiding naps and oversleeping can help tremendously.

Alternative medicines, supplements, or mind-body techniques may also relieve depression symptoms. These supplements don’t get monitored and approved by the U.S. FDA as medications do, so you can’t be too sure what you’re taking and if it will help. Some supplements can interfere with your prescribed medications and cause unwanted side effects, so it’s best to steer clear of these options.

You can manage SAD in multiple ways

  1. Sticking to your care plan and keeping up with appointments and medications can make a big difference.
  2. Take care of yourself: go for walks, find new hobbies to get into, hang out with friends, and exercise can boost your mood.
  3. Manage your stress by finding new stress relief techniques. Meditation, yoga, and reading a book are a few ways to lessen stress in your life.
  4. If you’re able, take a vacation somewhere, even if it’s just for a few days. Changing your scenery and doing something different can go a long way.

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