For most people, every new season brings welcome changes and a breath of fresh air. Spring is a gardener’s haven. It’s a season of birth and growth and lots of sweet smells. Summertime brings sunshine, picnics, and lots of outdoor activities. Summer gives way to autumn with a burst of color and a crispness in the air. The winter months provide fun in the snow, holiday celebrations, and cozy indoor activities. Nearly everyone has a favorite season of the year. Some people find that their mental health changes abruptly during certain seasons, and not for the better.
For many people, the season and the weather have an impact on their moods. If you’re feeling sad, depressed, and out of sorts as of late fall and winter approach, it might not be a coincidence. You may have seasonal affective disorder, which is commonly referred to as SAD. Seasonal affective disorder is a mental health disorder that falls under the category of depression.
Unlike major depression, seasonal affective disorder doesn’t stick around all year. It’s easy to miss a diagnosis of SAD because people with SAD enjoy good mental health for most of the year. If this sounds like something you’re dealing with, the proper diagnosis and treatment can help you enjoy good mental health every season of the year.
What’s confusing about seasonal affective disorder is that a diagnosis of it requires having all the official criteria for major depression and having it for at least two years. The difference is that seasonal affective disorder displays a seasonal pattern. You might have major depression if your sadness and other symptoms are present all year long. If you have seasonal depression and it’s more frequent than any non-seasonal depression, you might consider asking a professional to help you determine what kind of depression you’re dealing with. Sometimes, just being able to put the right name with a diagnosis will give you peace of mind, and that goes a long way toward improving your overall mental health.
Most people with seasonal affective disorder find that their mood starts to darken around early fall or early winter. When spring or summer rolls around, the symptoms largely disappear or lessen greatly. That’s not to say that you won’t see symptoms at all during the warmer months. A few weeks of rainy, gloomy days during the summer might cause symptoms of SAD to emerge. Most people find that the symptoms dissipate when the sun starts to shine again, and that’s certainly something to look forward to!
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides lots of valuable information on seasonal affective disorder. NIMH lists the following main symptoms of seasonal affect disorder:
Some people that live with seasonal affective disorder may also have one or more of the following symptoms:
If you compare the symptoms of SAD with those of major depression, you’ll see some distinct differences which will help you to identify the differences between the disorders.
The symptoms of major depression are feeling depressed most of the day on most days. Sufferers of major depression often have low energy and feel hopeless or worthless. Losing interest in activities, having trouble sleeping, and having trouble concentrating are all symptoms of major depression. Changes in your appetite or weight in one direction or the other may indicate major depression, as well as feeling sluggish or irritated. In severe cases of major depression, people have frequent thoughts of death or suicide. If you’re having those kinds of thoughts, it’s best to seek professional help right away.
Since the dark, gloomy days tend to make the symptoms of seasonal affect disorder worse, you may be wondering about whether the light has a positive effect on the disorder. The general answer is yes. The better news is that other types of treatments for seasonal affective disorder are also effective. The four main types of treatment for SAD are medication, light therapy, psychotherapy, and vitamin D. NIMH suggests that people with SAD may use one or more of the treatments together.
One of the first successful treatments for SAD dates back to the 1980s, and that is light therapy. Where the sun doesn’t tend to shine in the fall and winter seasons, having exposure to bright, artificial light can drastically improve the symptoms of seasonal affect disorder. The light therapy treatment consists of sitting in front of a lightbox, the first thing in the morning as soon as symptoms appear. Sit in front of the lightbox every day until the spring. The lightboxes contain10,000 lux cool-white fluorescent light, and they have 20 times greater light than your regular indoor lighting.
Another easy thing that you can do at home is to start taking vitamin D and see if it makes a difference for you. NIMH states that vitamin D won’t cure your symptoms of seasonal affective disorder on its own. People with SAD have been found to have low levels of vitamin D in their systems, which could be due to either the lack of exposure to the sun or lack of vitamin D in the diet. A study in 2014 showed mixed results of those who took vitamin D to treat seasonal affective disorder. Some studies showed that vitamin D was as effective as light therapy, and other studies showed it didn’t have any effect at all.
Some people find that medications may be helpful in treating the symptoms of seasonal affect disorder. Depending on your health profile, physicians may prescribe medications to supplement other types of treatment for seasonal affective disorder. Be aware that medications may be accompanied by uncomfortable side effects, and they can interfere with other medications you’re taking to treat other conditions. Your physician is your best resource to help you understand whether adding a medication to your treatment regime for seasonal affective disorder is right for you.
Many people that live with seasonal affective disorder find help by seeing a therapist. The most common type of psychotherapy for seasonal affective disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. The premise behind CBT is for the therapist to help you identify negative thoughts and replace them with more positive thoughts in connection with another therapeutic technique called behavioral activation. The behavioral activation component enables you to identify activities that you can enjoy inside or outside to help you cope with the gloominess that can accompany winter.
Researchers haven’t been able to figure out conclusively why some people get seasonal affective disorder, and others don’t. They have been able to identify specific reasons and populations of people that tend to be more affected by it than others.
For some unknown reason, women are four times more at risk of SAD than men. Women who are nurses or who work second shift are particularly at risk of getting SAD.
Men and women that live far north or south of the equator are also more prone to getting SAD. This study shows that 1% of Florida residents and 9% of those in New England and Alaska live with SAD.
Researchers also believe that people with a family history of other types of depression may acquire SAD more quickly than others that don’t have family members living with depression. People that have already been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder may have worse symptoms in the colder months. Surprisingly, younger adults more commonly experience symptoms of SAD than older adults.
Some other common denominators that researchers have found in people diagnosed with SAD is that they tend to have more melatonin in their bodies, which is the hormone that regulates your sleep. The melatonin increases with the shorter days of daylight, which throws off your natural circadian rhythms, making you feel listless and tired.
As noted earlier, people with SAD have bodies that produce less vitamin D than others. Vitamin D is connected to serotonin, a chemical in your brain that contributes to happiness. NMIH states that people with SAD have 5% more serotonin transporter protein during the winter than in the summer, which leaves less serotonin available to help improve your mood.
This information should give you a pretty good idea of whether you’re dealing with SAD or some other type of mental health disorder. With plenty of treatments available, you don’t have to suffer in silence.
If you need someone to help you sort things out, BetterHelp is an excellent place to help you find a therapist that can help. By getting on the right path to improved mental health, you’ll be able to enjoy every season all year round.