As the seasons change, the clocks shift, and the temperatures drop, it can take a lot to get out the door. But if you notice a dramatic shift in your mood and energy levels at the turn of the seasons, you’re not alone. In fact, you may be one of thousands of people who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder that typically affects people during the fall or winter months. Fortunately, if you’re looking for solutions to the seasonal slump, there are several treatments available to help brighten your days and elevate your mood. Below, we’re going to discuss seasonal affective disorder, what causes this form of depression, and how you can address it through light treatment and other solutions.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), people with SAD typically experience major depressive episodes during the fall or winter months.
In everyday conversations, you may hear friends or family describe SAD as the "winter blues," “seasonal depression,” or “winter depression.” However, some people experience a rare form of SAD called “summer depression,” beginning in late spring or early summer and ending in the fall. Consequently, SAD is the most widely used and accepted term to encompass a range of individual experiences.
Who Is Likely To Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
While anyone can develop SAD, some people are predisposed to develop this disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some of the risk factors for SAD include:
- Age: Usually, SAD begins in young adulthood.
- Geographic Location: SAD is more common among people living farther north, where daylight hours are shorter in the winter.
According to American Family Physician organization, people who live in Washington State are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than people living in Florida.
History Of Mental Illness: SAD is more common in people with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or other mental health conditions such as eating disorders, anxiety disorders, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
What Causes SAD?
While scientists do not have a full understanding of what causes SAD, research indicates a few factors that may influence its development. Since many people with SAD experience its symptoms in the fall and winter, most scientists and healthcare professionals believe that shorter days – and, in turn, less sunlight – negatively affect people with SAD. Studies indicate that sunlight controls the molecules that maintain healthy levels of serotonin. This neurotransmitter affects emotional processing, mood, appetite, sexual desire, sleep, and even pain processing. In people with SAD, studies suggest that their brains already have reduced serotonin activity; during the fall and winter when sunlight is limited, their serotonin levels are even lower, resulting in depressive symptoms.
Other researchers believe that people with SAD overproduce melatonin, a hormone that helps manage sleep. During the winter, when days are shorter and darker, people with SAD may produce too much melatonin and feel extra fatigued and depressed.
What Are The Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD are like those of depression, but there are a few key differences between the two disorders. Ultimately, it all comes down to timing: often, the symptoms of SAD and depression are nearly identical, with the exception that SAD symptoms are usually confined to the fall or winter months. If you suspect you or a loved one has SAD, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Increased sleep
- Fatigue and drowsiness during the daytime
- Feeling hopeless, guilty, anxious, or irritable
- Poor concentration
- Reduced libido
- Increased appetite and weight gain
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Lack of pleasure in activities you normally enjoy
If you have SAD, you’ll typically experience the onset of any of these symptoms in the fall – also called “winter depression” – or, more rarely, in the spring, also called “summer depression.” Before receiving a clinical diagnosis of SAD, a person needs to experience at least two years of these symptoms that become worse during a specific time of the year.
What Are The Risks Of SAD?
If left untreated, the symptoms of SAD can lead to significant problems at work, school, and in your relationships. Regardless of the time of year, attempting to live your daily life with these symptoms can be exhausting. You may feel too tired or depressed to complete important tasks, socialize with loved ones, or engage in activities that give you joy and a sense of purpose. Additionally, if you’ve been diagnosed with another mental illness, the symptoms of SAD can reduce your overall mental health and complicate your treatment.
Treatments For SAD
SAD is a challenging condition, but it’s also highly treatable. Given the number of people who experience SAD, scientists have completed a significant amount of research to better understand and support people with this condition. Below are some of the most common treatment options endorsed by doctors, researchers, and therapists.
Light Therapy Box
One of the most popular forms of treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. Delivered through the regular use of a bright light box, light therapy is a proven effective method for reducing symptoms of SAD. Researchers have developed special light boxes that mimic natural sunlight, and may even help your body increase its production of vitamin D. If you’re shopping for a light box, there are several names used to describe them: you may stumble upon a bright light therapy lamp, phototherapy boxes, and simply light boxes. While they go by different names, most are all acceptable forms of light therapy to treat SAD.
For an effective seasonal affective disorder light therapy treatment, a person with SAD sits in front of a very bright light box every day for 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, throughout the duration of their SAD symptoms: usually, from fall to spring. These light boxes are about 20 times brighter than typical indoor lights and filter out potentially damaging UV light, so they’re safe for most people. However, if you have any eye diseases or take any medications that increase your light sensitivity, it’s best to ask your doctor before starting this SAD treatment.
What to Look for in a Light Treatment Box
In addition to any personal health concerns or light sensitivity, it’s best to get personalized recommendations from your therapist or doctor before purchasing your first light box for seasonal affective disorder. A medical or mental health professional may be able to help you find the right type of light box given your history, symptoms, and concurrent methods of treatment for SAD. During your search, keep the following considerations in mind:
- Brightness Of The Light: Look for lamps that project light at 10,000 lux, which is a measurement of how much light the lamp delivers. The more light that the lamp safely delivers, the less time you need to sit in front of it.
- Plastic Filter: Most quality light-therapy lamps include a plastic filter that removes most, if not all, ultraviolet waves, which can cause eye damage.
- Design: There are many different styles and designs of light-therapy lamps. Some include an adjustable arm and other features that make them easy to assemble on your desk, bedside table, or in a favorite reading spot.
For most people, full-spectrum light therapy lamps are a worthy investment with minimal side effects. According to The New York Times, the most commonly reported side effects of using a light therapy lamp include eyestrain and headaches. If you have a history of clinical depression or bipolar disorder, discuss light therapy with your doctor before starting treatment. According to Dr. Michael Terman, the director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, people with a history of bipolar disorder or depression may experience an exaggerated response to light therapy, like deepened depression or hypomania.
Other Treatments For SAD
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor might recommend the use of antidepressant medications, antianxiety drugs, supplements, and other medications to improve your symptoms. A therapist cannot prescribe any of these medications, so consult with your doctor or psychiatrist before incorporating them into your treatment plan.
While SAD can make you feel like withdrawing from friends, family, and favorite activities, healthcare professionals emphasize the importance of social support during any depressive episode. If possible, talk to friends and family about your SAD and treatment plan so they can provide encouragement and even attend medical appointments with you.
Before the expected onset of SAD symptoms, it may also be helpful to solidify and give a self-care plan with friends and family. Your list of self-care activities may include light exercise, cooking a meal with friends or a partner, or making art. By giving this list with loved ones, you can ask them to check in regularly and discuss your progress and needs.
Even after the symptoms of SAD subside, many people find that talk therapy becomes a foundational part of their mental health. Talk therapy is especially helpful for the symptoms of SAD. By matching with a therapist, you can develop a better understanding of your condition, potential contributors to your symptoms, and how to care for your physical and mental health year-round.
Based on the results of a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment for many people with SAD. After 12 sessions of CBT, the depressive symptoms of people with SAD improved significantly, and the treatment was comparably effective to light therapy for depression. In general, CBT helps people change negative thought patterns and behaviors and is a promising treatment for a range of mental health conditions. Studies also indicate that CBT can be just as effective when delivered online.
If you’re experiencing SAD but lack the time, energy, or resources for face-to-face therapy, you can engage in CBT and other forms of therapy with an online therapist. Using an online platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a licensed, experienced therapist who has a master’s or doctorate degree in their field. Many therapists have years of experience supporting people with SAD and offer specialized knowledge and coping strategies to improve your quality of life. With a reliable Internet connection, you can meet with a therapist whenever and wherever, and plan your sessions to suit your schedule and mental health goals.
Frequently Asked Questions
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