As the days get shorter, are you battling a prolonged case of the blues? If so, and if you’ve experienced the same feelings around this time in years past, you may have seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. Often referred to as the “winter blues,” SAD most commonly occurs during late autumn and winter. It can also occur in spring or summer, but it is much less common at that time of year.
Many people affected by seasonal affective disorder write off how they feel as just “being in a funk” due to the change in seasons. But if you find you have the same symptoms around the same time each year, SAD may be to blame. Most people notice symptoms of SAD beginning in October or November as the days get shorter, with symptom improvement not occurring until around April or May when daylight increases.
Women are more likely to get SAD than men. In fact, between 60 and 90 percent of people with seasonal affective disorder are women. However, men may have more severe symptoms. Younger people are more likely to experience SAD than older adults. It has also been found that people who live further from the equator have an increased risk of SAD.
How You May Feel
As with other types of depression, symptoms can range from mild to severe. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Feeling sad, irritable, moody, agitated or anxious
- Being tired or lacking energy, even if you’re getting enough sleep
- Losing interest in usual activities
- Having trouble concentrating
- Gaining weight
- Craving specific foods (often those high in carbs)
- Being hypersensitive or having difficulty getting along with people
Why People Get SAD
There’s not a specific known cause of seasonal affective disorder. But since the vast majority of cases of SAD occur as levels of sunlight drop, it is likely that changes in your body affected by the decrease in daylight are to blame. These include:
- Circadian rhythm – Reduced amounts of sunlight can disrupt your body’s natural biological clock, which impacts your sleep-wake patterns and may lead to depression.
- Serotonin – Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood and less sunlight causes a drop in serotonin levels. This can lead to feelings of moodiness and depression.
- Melatonin – Melatonin also affects mood and sleep patterns, and changing levels in the fall and winter can trigger SAD.
What to Do If You Have SAD
It’s normal to feel down sometimes, but if you find your feelings don’t let up after a few weeks, it’s time to see a doctor or therapist. Although seasonal affective disorder is temporary, lasting only a few months during the year, symptoms can become severe and should not be ignored.
Here are the most common treatments for SAD:
- Phototherapy – Light therapy works by resetting your biological clock. It’s easy to do and causes no serious side effects. You will typically be prescribed light therapy for 30 minutes to 2 hours a day. The therapy involves sitting in front of light box with fluorescent lights that are brighter than regular indoor lights. Another type of light therapy uses a dim light that goes on while you sleep and then gradually gets brighter, simulating a sunrise. Studies show light therapy can improve symptoms for 50 to 80 percent of people with mild symptoms. Even if you feel better after you start using light therapy, you should continue it until the season changes or your symptoms may return.
- Psychotherapy – Counseling may help you learn how to better manage your symptoms and may be used in conjunction with other types of treatments.
- Medication – Antidepressants may be prescribed to people with seasonal affective disorder, with or without light therapy.
Other Things That May Help
- Get outside – It’s helpful to get outside as much as you can during the winter and to let in as much natural light as possible when you’re indoors.
- Exercise – Exercise can help alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD, especially if you do it outdoors.
- Eat healthy – Stick to a healthy eating plan to avoid weight gain.
- Relax and sleep – Practice relaxation and stress management and try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule.