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December 22, 2021
5 min. read

Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Signs to Look for, and How to Treat It

Medly

Winter weather means shorter days, chillier temperatures… and therefore, spending quite a bit less time outside. Some people might welcome the opportunity to hibernate—but for others, it can exacerbate feelings of fatigue, sluggishness, and even depression.

If you find yourself feeling sad during the winter, you may be suffering from something known as “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD, which is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. And you’re not alone—SAD affects an estimated 10 million Americans.

SAD

It may be tempting to brush off your SAD symptoms as a case of the “winter blues,” or to try to talk yourself out of your seasonal funk. But it’s important to know that there are therapies out there that work to treat SAD—and consulting with a mental health professional isn’t a bad idea, either.From symptoms to simple ways to support your mindset for the better, let’s break it down.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year. According to the American Psychiatric Association, this disorder is identified as a type of depression – Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.

For those who experience SAD, they start to feel depressed when the seasons change. For most people, symptoms usually begin in autumn, getting worse throughout the winter. They normally pass with the onset of spring.

What are some signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

Most symptoms of seasonal affective disorder appear during late fall or early winter, letting up in spring and summer. Some people find that they experience seasonal depression symptoms that begin in spring and summer, though this is much less common. In both cases, symptoms start out as mild and get progressively worse as the season continues on.

Signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

seasonal depression

Symptoms specific to winter seasonal depression, often include: 1. Oversleeping 2. Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates 3. Weight gain 4. Tiredness or low energy

How is seasonal affective disorder diagnosed?

Because other types of depression, like major depression, and other mental health conditions can closely resemble SAD, it can sometimes be difficult to properly diagnose. If you think you are suffering from seasonal depression, you’ll want to get a thorough evolution by your provider. Part of this evaluation should involve a physical exam, where your provider can make sure your depression isn’t a result of an underlying health problem.

They may also run lab tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC) to ensure your thyroid is functioning properly, as an underactive thyroid can cause depression. The last and arguably most important aspect of the evaluation will be the psychological evaluation, where your provider asks about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns to check for signs of depression. Sometimes, though not always, they may have you fill out a questionnaire for this part of the evaluation.

How is seasonal affective disorder treated?

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder may involve medication, psychotherapy, and light therapy. In addition, there are a few lifestyle and at-home remedies that may help with your condition.

light therapy

  • Light therapy. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is usually the first line of treatment for SAD. This involves sitting a few feet from a special light box within the first hour of waking up each day during the winter. The light from this box will mimic natural outdoor light, and appears to work by causing a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Generally, those who use light therapy start to notice a change in mood within a few weeks with few side effects.
  • Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can also help with seasonal depression. A trained clinical psychologist can help you develop healthy ways of coping with your SAD symptoms, as well as help you to manage stress and create new, healthy behaviors. Some find CBT, or cognitive behavior therapy, to be especially effective.
  • Medications. If your symptoms are severe, you may consider treatment with antidepressants. They are used most effectively if taken at the start of winter before symptoms appear, and continued until spring. The preferred type of antidepressant for those with SAD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, because they increase the level of the hormone serotonin in your brain, which can help lift your mood.
  • Lifestyle and at-home remedies. There are a number of ways to introduce light naturally into your home and life: open the windows, go out for a walk, or sit close to bright windows throughout the day. It’s also important to exercise, which can help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety. Lastly, it can help to normalize your sleep patterns. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and try not to nap or oversleep if possible.

If you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder, it’s important to talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Together, you can develop a treatment plan that’s right for you.

Resources: 1. Boston University. (2019, November 1). Seasonal Affective Disorder Impacts 10 Million Americans | BU Today. 2. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Symptoms and causes. (2021, December 14). Mayo Clinic. 3. Depression (major depressive disorder) – Symptoms and causes. (2018, February 3). Mayo Clinic. 4. Seasonal Depression (SAD): Symptoms & Treatments. (n.d.). Cleveland Clinic. 5. Thyroid disease: Can it affect a person’s mood? (2020, December 23). Mayo Clinic 6. Praschak-Rieder, N., & Willeit, M. (2003). Treatment of seasonal affective disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(4), 389–398. 7. Virk, G., Reeves, G., Rosenthal, N. E., Sher, L., & Postolache, T. T. (2009). Short exposure to light treatment improves depression scores in patients with seasonal affective disorder: A brief report. International journal on disability and human development : IJDHD, 8(3), 283–286. 8. Seasonal affective disorder: More than the winter blues. (2014). American Psychological Association. 9. NHS website. (2021, November 18). Treatment – Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Nhs.Uk. 10. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). (2019, September 17). Mayo Clinic. 11. Salmon, P. (2000). Effects of Physical Exercise on Anxiety, Depression, and Sensitivity to Stress: A Unifying Theory. Clinical Psychology Review.

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