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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?


Season Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time each year, typically in the fall and winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. It is sometimes colloquially known as "winter depression" or "winter blues." The exact cause of SAD remains unknown, but it's believed to be related to the decrease in sunlight during the shorter days of the year, which can disrupt your body's internal clock or circadian rhythm, lead to drops in serotonin (a brain chemical that affects mood), and increase melatonin levels, which can affect sleep patterns and mood.

Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD is more than just a case of the winter blues; it is a recognized mental health condition that affects millions of people every year. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can significantly impact daily functioning. People with SAD may experience mood swings, a persistent low mood, a loss of pleasure or interest in everyday activities, irritability, feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness, sleeping for longer than normal, and craving carbohydrates with subsequent weight gain.

Woman sitting in a fancy but darkened room with sunlight streaming in.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of SAD often begin in the fall, continue into the winter months, and typically resolve in the spring and summer. However, a less common form of SAD, known as summer depression, can occur in the late spring or early summer and resolve in the fall. To be diagnosed with SAD, individuals must meet the full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years. The symptoms may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight

  • Having problems with sleep

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Having low energy

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Causes and Risk Factors

While the specific cause of SAD is unknown, several factors may increase the risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Biological Clock (Circadian Rhythm): The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD and disrupt your body's internal clock, leading to feelings of depression.

  • Serotonin Levels: Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, which might trigger depression.

  • Melatonin Levels: The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Treatment and Management

Treatment for SAD may include light therapy (phototherapy), psychotherapy, and medications. Addressing the disorder often involves a combination of these treatments to effectively manage symptoms:

  • Light Therapy: This involves sitting a few feet from a special light box that mimics natural sunlight. Starting light therapy in the early fall can prevent the onset of symptoms.

  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in treating SAD. CBT can help individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to their depression.

  • Medication: For some people, antidepressant medications can help alleviate the symptoms of SAD, especially if symptoms are severe.

A guy laying on the coach with a woman staring at him.

Coping Strategies and Prevention

In addition to treatment, certain lifestyle changes and coping strategies can help manage Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms:

  • Make Your Environment Sunnier and Brighter: Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight, and sit closer to windows to soak up as much natural light as possible.

  • Spend More Time Outside: Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help, especially if you spend some time outside within the first two hours of getting up in the morning.

  • Exercise Regularly: Physical activity can help relieve stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression while boosting your mood.

  • Stay Connected: Reach out to family and friends, especially on tough days. Being alone can exacerbate feelings of depression.

Seeking Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD is a real and serious condition that affects many people each year. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options is the first step toward managing this seasonal depression. If you think you might be experiencing SAD, it's important to seek professional help. With the right approach, it is possible to manage the symptoms and enjoy every season of the year to its fullest.

If you’re looking to receive treatment for SAD or would like more information on other services that we provide, please contact ACE today.



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