Table of Contents

Seasonal Affective Disorder

seasonal affective disorder

Clinically Reviewed by: Dr. Robin Campbell, LMFT, PHD

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As the days get shorter and sunlight becomes a precious commodity, some people find themselves feeling more than just a little down. The change in seasons can profoundly impact mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. This experience is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it’s much more than a fleeting case of the “winter blues.”

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression with a recurring seasonal pattern. For most, symptoms emerge in the late fall or early winter and begin to fade away during the brighter days of spring and summer. Less commonly, some people experience SAD during the spring and summer months.

Signs and Symptoms: Recognizing SAD

SAD manifests in many ways, mirroring some symptoms of major depressive disorder. Here are key signs to look out for:

  • Persistent low mood: Feeling sad, hopeless, or empty for most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Loss of interest: Activities you once enjoyed no longer hold any appeal.
  • Energy changes: Experiencing low energy levels, fatigue, or feeling sluggish.
  • Sleep issues: Oversleeping or experiencing difficulty sleeping.
  • Appetite and weight changes: Craving carbohydrates, overeating, and potential weight gain.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Finding it harder to focus, make decisions, or remember things.
  • Feeling agitated or restless: A noticeable change in your usual activity levels.
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or excessive guilt: Harsh self-criticism or feeling undeserving
  • In severe cases, thoughts of death or suicide: If you or someone you know is experiencing this, please seek immediate help (resources provided at the end of this blog).

The "Winter Blues" vs. SAD

It’s important to understand that the “winter blues” and SAD are not the same. The winter blues are characterized by milder feelings of sadness, fatigue, or changes in energy levels as the days grow shorter. SAD, on the other hand, is a more severe form of depression that significantly interferes with daily life, relationships, and work.

Diagnosing Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you suspect you might have SAD, it’s crucial to consult with a mental health professional. Your doctor or therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation, including:

  • Physical exam: Ruling out other medical conditions that could cause similar symptoms, such as thyroid problems.
  • Mental health assessment: Discussing your mood patterns, symptoms, and how they change throughout the year.
  • Diagnostic criteria: Evaluating your experiences against the diagnostic criteria for SAD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Who Is at Risk for SAD?

While anyone can experience SAD, certain factors increase your risk:

  • Gender: Women are diagnosed with SAD more often than men.
  • Age: Young adults are more likely to experience SAD.
  • Location: Living farther from the equator, where there’s less sunlight during winter, increases risk.
  • Family history: Having relatives with SAD or other forms of depression makes you more susceptible.
 

Existing conditions: Individuals with depression or bipolar disorder may have worsening symptoms during specific seasons.

Why Does SAD Happen? The Science Behind It

Researchers haven’t pinpointed the exact cause of SAD, but several factors appear to play a role:

  • Reduced sunlight: Shorter days and less sunlight can disrupt your internal clock (circadian rhythm), leading to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin disruption: Reduced sunlight may lower serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.
  • Melatonin changes: The changing seasons may impact the production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that can also influence mood.

Prevention is Key: Strategies to Manage SAD

Here are ways to potentially reduce the impact of SAD or prevent it altogether:

  • Light therapy: Spending time in front of a special light therapy box that mimics natural sunlight can help regulate your body’s internal clock.
  • Embrace the outdoors: Make the most of daylight hours. Go for walks, take your lunch breaks outside, or sit near windows whenever possible.
  • Stay active: Regular exercise is a powerful mood booster and helps combat fatigue.
  • Healthy eating: Focus on a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to support your physical and mental well-being.
  • Social connection: Don’t isolate yourself. Maintain strong connections with friends and family.
  • Stress management: Practice relaxation techniques like mindfulness, meditation, or deep breathing.
  • Vitamin D: Since reduced sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency, talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of a supplement.

Treatment Options for SAD

If you’re diagnosed with SAD, your doctor or therapist may recommend the following treatment options:

Medication

  • Antidepressants: Certain antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may help regulate mood. Your doctor will recommend the best option for you. Some antidepressants can be taken year-round, while others might be specifically helpful during the season you tend to experience SAD.

 

Therapy

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps you identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to depression.
  • Interpersonal therapy: Focuses on improving relationships and social skills
  • Other talk therapy approaches: These therapies can help you develop coping skills and strategies to manage stress

 

Lifestyle Changes

Combined with medication and/or therapy, implementing specific lifestyle changes can further bolster your treatment results.   In addition to those already suggested in the prevention section, consider:

  • Maintain a regular schedule: Keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule and regular meal times to create structure and stability for your body and mind.
  • Seek out enjoyable activities: Schedule activities you look forward to, especially during seasons when you know you’re more prone to SAD.
  • Plan a sunny getaway: If possible, consider taking a vacation to a sunny destination during the months you’re most vulnerable. This is not an option for everyone, but it can be a helpful strategy if it’s feasible.

Living with SAD: A Path to Better Days

While Seasonal Affective Disorder can feel debilitating, remember, it is a treatable condition. With the right support, strategies, and, in some cases, medication, you can manage SAD and reduce its impact on your life. Remember, the brighter days of spring and summer are not too far off, and with the right tools, you can navigate the darker months with greater ease.

Help is Available, Don't Hesitate

If you or someone you care about is struggling with seasonal affective disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help. Contact New Hope Healthcare Institute at 866-806-1027 to learn more about our comprehensive treatment programs and supportive resources.

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