Although everyone feels blue from time to time, individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) experience depression at the same time each year, often during the winter.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as seasonal depression, is a type of mood disorder that takes place at the same time each year. This usually occurs during the winter months, but in some rare cases, it may also take place during the summer months. This form of the disorder is known as summer depression and typically begins in either late spring or early summer. Symptoms of this form end in fall. In the most common form of the disorder, symptoms typically begin in fall or winter and end by spring or early summer.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Not everyone with Seasonal Affective Disorder experiences the same symptoms. Persons with the winter-onset form of SAD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Weight gain
  • Change in appetite, including craving starchy or sweet foods
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding social events
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Headaches
  • Desire to be alone

Symptoms of the summer-onset form of SAD may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Irritability

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder tend to return each year. In most cases, symptoms come and go at approximately the same time.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is believed to be associated with the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter. Researchers think that this is due to the fact that a lack of sunlight can affect the body in a number of ways that may be associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder. This includes the Circadian rhythm or biological clock. Decreased levels of sunlight may interrupt the natural rhythms of the body, resulting in feelings of depression.

It is also thought that a lack of sunlight may result in a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is the brain chemical responsible for affecting one’s mood. Lower levels of serotonin may also trigger feelings of depression.

Melatonin, the brain chemical that is responsible for regulating sleep, may also be affected by shorter days and less sunlight. Increased amounts of melatonin may make you feel more lethargic and tired, both of which are common symptoms of depression.

It is also believed that vitamin D may be linked to serotonin levels. A significant portion of the amount of vitamin D we receive is from sunlight; therefore, less sunlight could result in vitamin D deficiency.

Researchers also believe that some people may be at greater risk for developing Seasonal Affective Disorder. These risk factors include:

  • Living far from the equator
  • Being female
  • Having bipolar disorder or depression
  • Family history

Four times as many women than men are diagnosed with this disorder. The further north you live, the more your risk for developing this ; this risk may be due to the fact that such geographic areas receive less sunlight during the fall and winter. Individuals with bipolar disorder or depression may find that their symptoms worsen seasonally.

Age may also affect one’s risk for developing this disorder. SAD does tend to be more common among young people, while the risk of developing it decreases with age.

It should be noted that the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder may be mild in some people, while others with this disorder may find that their symptoms are so severe they interfere with their ability to work and relationships.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Various treatments are available for Seasonal Affective Disorder. The treatments offered often depend on the severity of symptoms. Treatment may also be different depending on whether the individual also suffers from another disorder, such as bipolar disorder or depression.

There is not much that can be done to prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder, but there are steps that can be taken to manage symptoms.

One of the most common treatments recommended for this disorder is to get outside early in the morning as soon as possible in order to get more natural light. When this is not possible due to a lack of sunlight in the winter, light therapy may prove to be helpful. The goal of light therapy is to compensate for the lack of sunlight experienced during the fall and winter. This treatment has been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder since the 1980s. During light therapy, the patient sits in front of a special light box each day. This light box is designed to imitate natural sunlight for the purpose of stimulating a change in the brain chemicals responsible for mood regulation. The amount of time spent in front of the light box is based on the strength of the light, but usually ranges from about 20 minutes to one hour.

Other forms of light therapy include a dawn simulator, which is placed in the bedroom and turns on each morning to imitate a natural sunrise that will gradually increase in brightness, thus making it possible for you to wake up naturally even if it is still quite dark outside.

For patients who find light therapy to be beneficial, it is usually important to continue using the therapy until the seasons change. Ceasing the use of therapy too soon may cause a return of symptoms.

Light therapy generally produces few side effects, but possible side effects include fatigue, headache, eyestrain, and irritability. When used too late in the day, light therapy may cause problems sleeping.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be used in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder. With this form of therapy, the patient is encouraged to first identify negative thoughts and then replace those thoughts with positive thoughts. This form of therapy can assist you with developing healthy ways for managing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder while also managing stress.

If you believe that you may be suffering from the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s important to seek help as quickly as possible.

If you find you relate to the information in this article and would like some help, please contact Rita with Sioux Falls Wellness Counseling at (605) 610-9228.