Generally, it is normal to feel down during the transition from the warm weather months to the cold winter season. However, experiencing too much sadness for no reason could be a pointer that one is suffering from seasonal depression.
Recent data from Mental Health America reveals seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the “winter blues,” affects 0.5 to 3 percent of individuals in the general population. It also occurs in 25 percent of people with bipolar disorder and 10 to 20 percent of those with major depressive disorder.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression is a subtype of depression that occurs when seasons change. The condition occurs around the same time each year. And symptoms begin to show at the onset of fall and continue into the winter months during times of low natural sunlight.
However, seasonal depression sets in for some people during the summer or spring, although this is less common. During these times, one can get a mild version of SAD, also known as winter blues.
How is Seasonal Depression Different from Clinical Depression?
Clinical depression is a more severe type of depression, also known as major depressive disorder. While seasonal depression occurs in seasonal patterns, clinical depression occurs anytime during the year. This means a person with clinical depression may feel down most of the time for most days of the year. This impact on mood significantly affects their daily life and overall mental health.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?
Typically, the symptoms of seasonal depression are similar to those of clinical depression. It can be challenging to determine whether a person suffers from seasonal depression or other common types of depression. The following are some of the common symptoms of seasonal depression:
- Sadness/feeling down: A person may experience guilt, misery, loss of self-esteem, diminished interest in activities, despair, apathy, or hopelessness.
- Anxiety: It is common for someone to experience tension and an inability to handle stress.
- Overeating: People with this condition may also crave sweet and starchy foods, which leads to weight gain.
- Sexual problems: It is common to lose interest in physical contact.
- Social problems: A person can also experience increased irritability and a strong desire to avoid social contact.
- Mood changes: One can experience extreme mood changes and periods of mania during specific times of the year.
- Sleep problems: These may include disturbed sleep, oversleeping, difficulty staying awake, and early morning waking.
The specific symptoms are more common in seasonal depression than in other forms of depression. These symptoms include weight gain, excessive sleepiness, increased appetite, and carbohydrate craving.
What Is the Prevalence of Seasonal Depression?
The following are a few interesting statistics about seasonal depression:
- The prevalence of seasonal depression is from 0 to 10% of the population, depending on the geographic region
- About 5% of the US population experience seasonal depression in a year.
- Four out of five people living with seasonal depression are women
- Symptoms of seasonal depression may begin between 20 and 30 years of age
- Usually, the further one is from the equator, the higher the risk of developing seasonal depression
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
The following are some of the common causes of seasonal depression:
- Reduced light: Reduced natural light during the colder months in fall and winter can affect a person’s serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that regulates mood. Lower levels of serotonin are known to trigger depression.
- Increase melatonin production: Melatonin is a sleep-related hormone affecting sleep patterns and mood. The hormone is usually produced at an increased level in the dark. When days are short and nights long, melatonin hormone production increases.
Diagnosis of Seasonal Depression
A diagnosis of seasonal depression is usually made after a person experiences two occurrences of depression symptoms that occur and end at the same period each year. The doctor may perform the following evaluations during the diagnosis:
- Physical exam: The healthcare provider can perform a physical exam and ask questions regarding a person’s health. There are cases where depression is linked to an underlying physical health problem.
- Lab tests: The healthcare provider can do a blood test commonly referred to as a complete blood count (CBC). Lab tests can also confirm whether a patient’s thyroid is functioning correctly.
- Psychological evaluation: The doctor may order a psychological evaluation to determine the signs of depression. The professionals may ask about the prevalent symptoms, behavior patterns, thoughts, and thoughts.
Treatment for Seasonal Depression
Treatment for seasonal depression includes:
Light therapy: Light therapy is a preferred first line of treatment for the onset of seasonal depression. It involves sitting a few feet from a special light box that exposes the patient to extremely bright light within the first hours after waking up. The light therapy mimics typical natural outdoor light to trigger changes in brain chemicals and improve mood.
Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is a cognitive behavioral therapy that equips a person with skills to cope with seasonal depression. The patient is taught ways to change negative thoughts and behaviors that may make them feel worse. One is also equipped with skills to foster healthy behaviors such as physical activity.
Medications: Some people with seasonal depression can find relief in antidepressant medications such as antidepressant bupropion. The healthcare provider usually recommends the patient start the treatment with an antidepressant before the onset of the symptoms.
Vitamin D supplements: Vitamin D supplement is known to improve the symptoms significantly.
Is Light Therapy Safe?
Light therapy is generally safe and well-tolerated by most people. However, there are instances when a patient is asked to avoid light therapy:
- Light exposure can damage the retina of a person with diabetes or retinopathies
- People taking some medications such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories are more sensitive to sunlight
- People with bipolar disorder, bright light therapy can trigger mania and hypomania
Find Help for Seasonal Depression with Acera Health
Seasonal changes can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm and hormone production to trigger negative feelings. While some people tolerate the changing seasons effectively, others find themselves feeling a general sense of depression.
Anyone experiencing seasonal depression should seek immediate help. Acera Health is Orange County’s premier behavioral health services center. We provide evidence-based behavioral health programs for adults struggling with various health challenges. We offer customized outpatient treatment with multiple levels of care.
Contact us today to schedule a consultation.