It’s been a tough year for so many reasons, but as we lose that bright summer sunshine and the weather gets colder, some of you may notice your mood and energy levels feel lower than usual.
If it feels like more than just the “winter blues,” then you may be one of the many people dealing with seasonal affective disorder, or “seasonal depression”. And with the current pandemic causing us to limit our social interactions and stay indoors, seasonal depression may become more prominent, and harder to deal with than ever–so we’re here to help support you.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder, or also (ironically) known as “SAD,” is a type of mood disorder that’s triggered when seasons change. It can happen during any seasonal shift, but it’s most common during fall and winter–when limited sunlight and temps keep us indoors–and can last until late spring or early summer.
Seasonal depression manifests uniquely in each person. Major depression has symptoms such as feelings of sadness, lack of interest or motivation, and fatigue, while bipolar disorder is a combination of ‘low’ depression episodes and ‘high’ manic episodes (high energy and restlessness). You may notice a variety of symptoms for either of these, but it’s more commonly associated with major depression.
Coping with any mood disorder can be incredibly difficult and overwhelming, and although seasonal depression doesn’t have to happen every year, it can end up affecting about 40% of people any given year.
So…what causes SAD?
Science isn’t yet able to give us an exact answer, so many people don’t know why they develop SAD. Let’s dive into what the research tells us.
Studies have shown that people with SAD may not properly regulate levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Research also tells us that because sunlight influences our production of Vitamin D (which helps promote serotonin production), winter months can result in lower serotonin levels when the sun isn’t as prominent.
Other research suggests the hormone melatonin may be a likely contributing factor. People with SAD seem to produce more melatonin than normal, and too much can leave you feeling sleepy.
As seasons change, so do our daily routines. The time we wake up and go to bed might fluctuate depending on the time the sun rises and sets. Since serotonin and melatonin regulate these sleep and wake cycles, having an imbalance can make it difficult for your body to adjust to seasonal changes–leaving you feeling, acting, and sleeping differently.
Here are some common symptoms to be on the lookout for:
You may have guessed it, but signs and symptoms of seasonal depression are pretty similar to those of major depression. The most difficult months for people with SAD in the United States tend to be January and February, when daylight hours and temperature tend to be at their lowest. So if you’re wondering if you may have seasonal depression, pay attention to these signs and symptoms around those key months:
- Feeling depressed or helpless/hopeless
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Less or lack of interest from activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty holding focus
- Increased sleep or issues sleeping
- Increased appetite (carbohydrate cravings)
- Weight gain
Symptoms can look a little different for people suffering from seasonal depression in the summer, so talk to your doctor if you think you may be one of the 10% of people with SAD that experience these feelings in the spring and summer.
Who’s at risk?
You’ll likely find more people with seasonal depression in areas where there tends to be less sunshine, more cloud coverage, and more winter weather. This means you’ll be more likely to find someone from Canada with seasonal depression than Texas. It’s also more common in women, and tends to start early on in life between 18 and 30 years old. If you have a family history of seasonal depression or other mood disorders, you may be more likely to develop it yourself.
Can seasonal depression happen to children?
Although it’s more common in young adults, children may also face the challenges of seasonal depression. Symptoms tend to present differently in children, making it easier to overlook; they may seem irritable, distracted, uninterested, or sleepy during the day. If you notice these symptoms are prominent during a certain season but suddenly go away during others, it might be helpful to talk to a healthcare professional about what could potentially be going on.
How is it diagnosed?
Your health care provider or a mental health specialist is the best person to turn to for help getting a diagnosis – they may ask you to fill out a questionnaire or ask you a series of questions about your experiences. Since seasonal depression can be similar to other forms of depression, there are a few guidelines you’ll need to meet to be diagnosed with seasonal depression. You should have all the symptoms of major depression or SAD specific symptoms during the same seasons for 2 consecutive years (which can be tricky since not everyone experiences symptoms each year) that occur more frequently than other depressive episodes.
And how is it treated?
Although it can be very difficult dealing with a mood disorder around the same time every year, it’s good to remember that seasonal depression is very treatable and many people experience some form of symptom relief by at least one of these methods:
- Light Therapy – This holistic favorite has been around since the 1980s! It can be more or less easily implemented into your current routine, and is safe for most people. You sit in front of a bright light for about 30 minutes or so that helps give your body that sunlight it’s missing out on. Basically…“fake it til you make it,” but for sun. It’s not just any ordinary light you sit in front of– light boxes are about 20 times brighter than normal lights and have no UV light that could be potentially harmful. If you have a certain condition or medication that causes you to have a sensitivity to sunlight, check with your doctor before trying light therapy.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-SAD) – This type of therapy is centered around helping people cope with their difficulties and focus on more positive thought processes. It also incorporates indoor and outdoor activities into treatment that help people cope with the isolation winter months tend to bring. Research shows that CBT and light therapy are both equally effective at treating symptoms of seasonal depression, but while light therapy might help you a bit quicker, CBT tends to give longer-lasting benefits.
- Medication – Since SAD is similar to other forms of depression, antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are typically used. Common SSRIs include paroxetine, fluoxetine, and sertraline. The FDA has also approved bupropion as an extended form of relief that may help throughout the entire season.
Trying one or a combination of these methods hopefully will offer you, or a loved one, some amount of symptom relief–but this list is definitely not exhaustive. You may also want to consider Vitamin D supplementation as a preventative measure.
Here are some ways you can try to lower your risk or manage your current symptoms of seasonal depression through lifestyle choices:
- Maintain a balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables
- Daily exercise – for 30 minutes, 5 or so times a week is recommended
- Quality time outdoors to give you plenty of Vitamin D
Dealing with any mood disorder is never easy, and no one fully understands what you’re going through but you. Let your loved ones in and let them know how you’re feeling. You’re not alone in this fight. If you need someone to talk to in addition to your loved ones and healthcare provider, here are some resources:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357, or text TalkWithUs (English and Spanish)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or 911
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (TTY: 1-800-787-3224)
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741