Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that affects millions of people worldwide. Although many people develop SAD, it’s still not a well-understood disorder. This is because of several factors. One is that it sometimes must take a back burner to more serious and life-threatening disorders. There is only so much time and energy to go around, and most scientists would spend this on trying to help people who struggle with more serious disorders.
The second is because of how situational it is. Two types of SAD have been documented. The most common is depression which starts around fall and lasts through the winter. The rarest kind starts during spring and runs through the summer. It can be difficult to study a disorder that only lasts for a specific amount of time. However, medical doctors are doing their best to understand and help people with this common but poorly understood disorder.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a type of depression that’s triggered by a change in seasons, usually when fall starts. This seasonal depression gets worse in the late fall or early winter before ending in the sunnier days of spring. Because of the timing of these depression spells, there is likely a biological cause. This is especially true for the winter-triggered SAD.
With winter comes darkness and cold, so people are less likely to go outside. Without access to the sun, people don’t get to synthesize an important vitamin called vitamin D. This is a vitamin needed for serotonin, a chemical (neurotransmitter) in the brain that regulates mood.
Deficiencies in this can lead to mood swings and general feelings of unease. This is also true with melatonin, a chemical that helps maintain your sleeping cycle. With the changes in sunlight and routine, it’s hard for your body to stick to its normal rhythm, which can lead to changes in your mood and behavior.
Many holidays also happen during winter, especially in the USA. This can overwhelm people and cause them to dread these events. Coupled with less daylight and resulting sleeping issues — like oversleeping, which is common in winter — it’s no wonder why some people develop SAD during the winter.
People who already have a mental health disorder, especially a depressive disorder, are more likely to develop SAD than anyone else. Those who live north of the equator or live in areas with a lot of cloud cover are also prone to developing SAD.
What Are the Most Common Symptoms of This Disorder?
People with SAD share a lot of symptoms with those that struggle with some form of depression. These common symptoms are:
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling slow with very low energy
- Changes in weight and appetite
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Feeling worthless
- Being unable to concentrate
Those with winter-based SAD tend to have these issues but also struggle with overeating and oversleeping, feeling as though they are ‘hibernating. People may also withdraw from social circles and avoid interactions with people, preferring to stay in one space. Those with summer-based SAD experience the opposite. They may experience insomnia, weight loss, and intense anxiety.
How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?
Because SAD isn’t understood very well, treatment options are still being explored and tested. However, there are currently existing treatment options available that may help someone cope with their SAD. The first and most common form of therapy to be used in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy. This is used to help someone learn healthy ways to cope with their disorder. People who develop SAD as a result of trauma or fear also use this kind of therapy to help them work through their feelings. A therapist will usually try this therapy along with a more biological-based treatment if applicable.
Providing someone with light therapy and vitamin D supplements also can be helpful for those with winter-based SAD. Light therapy is exposing someone to bright lights to make up for the lack of natural sunlight. To do this, a person sits in front of light boxes for a set amount of time so they can absorb the light into their skin. Those that live in places of the world, like Alaska, where the sun is gone for half of the year, are already familiar with this kind of treatment. Citizens are often provided sun lamps and supplements to help them get through the long dark winters.
In cases where none of the above work, medications may be prescribed temporarily to help relieve symptoms. This requires a visit to a psychiatrist who will be able to determine if you need or will benefit from medication. It may take time to figure out the correct dosage needed to help, so it is important to remain patient.
If you are struggling with SAD, consider joining a clinical study or trial. Researchers are always looking for those willing to donate their time and experiences to help them understand this tricky mental health disorder. Participation helps them develop new treatment methods, which can not only help you but those that may develop SAD in the future. If you would like to participate in a trial or study related to SAD, speak with your mental health provider.
In conclusion, SAD doesn’t have to rule your life. For those that experience this disorder every year, know that there is help available should you ask for it. There is no shame in asking for help.
Most people have heard of the “winter blues,” where you feel down once the snow starts to fall and the nights last longer. However, seasonal affective disorder is much more severe and can have a long-lasting negative impact on a person for months at a time. Nobody deserves to have to spend entire seasons of the year in a depressive state, unable to enjoy the wonders and beauty of our world. Here at Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we use the latest scientific discoveries to treat those that struggle with SAD. If you or someone you love is struggling with SAD or would like more information about it, please call (949) 647-4090 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.