As the air becomes cooler and the leaves start falling from the trees, you may notice a change in your mood. This feeling could actually be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and not the Winter Blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression related to changes in the season. It affects approximately 3 million people in the United States. It tends to occur around the same time of year. The most common form tends to start in the fall and continue into the winter months; less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer. It typically occurs in climates where there is less sunlight at certain times of the year. It is diagnosed more often in women than in men.
Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
- Feeling depressed daily, for most of the day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleeping ( oversleeping or insomnia)
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight ( overeating or not eating)
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
These symptoms are similar to that of clinical depression. Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer SAD patterns have some variability. Typically with the Fall/WInter pattern, people may experience more oversleeping, overeating ( mainly carbohydrates), have weight gain, and some social withdrawal. With the Spring/ Summer patterns of SAD, people tend to have the opposite sleeping issue than the Fall/Winter group; they experience insomnia. They experience weight loss due to poor appetite, more agitation, and anxiety.
Are there things that affect susceptibility to SAD? Family history is important to know. It has been seen in families with members who have another form of depression or SAD. You may be prone to have SAD if you already have depression or bipolar disorder. Depression symptoms may worsen seasonally. Where you live also plays a role. If you live further away from the equator or further north, there may be longer winters with less sunlight or long summer days, increasing SAD.
The cause of this disorder is not fully understood. It may be related to serotonin and melatonin level changes that occur with changes in the season. Low vitamin D has also been linked to worsening symptoms.
Seasonal Affective disorder can be treated in different ways. They range from light therapy to medications. Light therapy has been used since the 1980s. The exposure to light mimics sunlight exposure, especially in the darker winter months. This treatment method may not be suitable if a person is taking medications that create sensitivity to light. Another form of treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy to teach coping mechanisms. Medications can include antidepressants that target serotonin levels for a short period, and supplemental vitamin D is helpful.
Being in the middle of a pandemic has led to social limitations to decrease the spread of COVID 19. This can lead to more severe symptoms of SAD as well as more people experiencing SAD due to already experiencing depression and stress related to the pandemic. With the holidays at hand, people not being able to see their loved ones or gather in the same way they did before can significantly impact one’s mental health. There may be individuals with SAD who have not had any improvement due to the stress related to the pandemic. It is recommended to seek medical health if you are experiencing worsening depression or if you have been experiencing any of the discussed symptoms over a few days. There are also depression hotlines available if people need to speak to someone immediately, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( 1-800-662-HELP (4357).