Seasonal Affective Disorder: It’s not just the winter blues



It’s that time of year again—the time when temperatures drop and colder weather creeps in. Depending on where you live, you may even be feeling a freezing polar vortex or a snowy atmospheric river. Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: The longer, sunnier days of summer are suddenly shorter and darker. For some people, this seasonal transition can cause a sort of winter depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Think you may be affected? Here’s how to recognize and treat the symptoms of SAD.

What is SAD?

SAD is a condition with symptoms that sound a little like a common case of the winter blues. But it’s more than that. It’s actually a treatable type of depression that tends to show up in late fall and last until spring. In other words, people who feel just fine during the sunnier months can feel depressed for the remainder of the year.

So what actually causes SAD? The short answer is: no one really knows—but there are educated insights as to what factors may play a role. The first is the lack of sun during winter and fall seasons (particularly in areas farther from the equator). Turns out, when you get less natural light, your body knows and your internal clock can be affected. The second factor is the change in seasons. When fall and winter weasel their way in, the changes they bring can affect your body’s melatonin and serotonin levels (these are substances in your body that affect your sleep and mood). Combined, these factors can contribute to SAD.

What are symptoms of SAD?

If you find yourself suddenly feeling down when the seasons change, keep a close eye on your symptoms. Are you sleeping more? Gaining weight? Becoming irritable? Do you have an increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates? According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms like these should prompt a conversation with your doctor. Other symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Feeling agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

If these symptoms sound familiar, reach out for help.

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How can you treat SAD at home?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the go-to treatment for mild SAD is light therapy. Basically, it’s just sitting in front of a light box for 20-60 minutes a day. It sounds simple, but this daily dose of light can really help improve your mood. The best time to begin light therapy is at the change of seasons, ideally before symptoms appear. (You know what they say, “Prevention is the best medicine.”)

Though light boxes are readily available without a prescription, talk to your doctor before you pull the trigger and buy one. This is particularly important because other types of depression can look and feel the same, but can require very different treatment. The Mayo Clinic offers several guidelines for choosing the right light box, including considerations for eye protection, brightness, UV exposure and location of the box.

How can your doctor help?

If your mood doesn’t improve after several weeks of light therapy, it’s time to talk with a doctor. You may benefit from other treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressant medications like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you indulge in alcohol for comfort, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.

Remember: It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do things you normally enjoy, a 98point6 doctor can help you get the right kind of help. Treatment is available—all you have to do is take the first step: initiate the conversation.