What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a type of depression that can make people feel less energetic, moody, and distressed during the colder parts of the year. It generally begins at the same time every year, especially in the autumn and winter months. In less frequent cases, it can occur in spring and early summer.

Who Gets It and How?

While the exact cause is unknown, there are a few theories about the cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Most theories say it is due to the reduced levels of sunlight. Shorter days and reduced sunlight exposure are thought to affect the body by:
• Disrupting a person’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle)
• Triggering lower levels of serotonin
• Producing higher levels of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone.

Risk factors for developing SAD include:
• Being female. SAD is diagnosed more frequently in women compared to men
• Younger age. Younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults
• Family history of SAD or other forms of depression
• Having major depression or bipolar disorder
• Living far from the equator. It is thought that the further people live from the equator, the more common seasonal affective disorder can be. People of cloudy regions can also experience SAD, as well as those who relocate from living closer to the equator to further away from it.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms?

Symptoms of SAD appear during late autumn or early winter and fade away during spring and summer for most cases. This disorder is not considered a separate disorder from depression; rather it is a type of depression that occurs in a seasonal pattern.

Signs and symptoms may include:
• Feeling depressed most of the day or nearly every day
• Losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed
• Having low energy
• Problems sleeping
• Difficulty concentrating
• Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
• Changes in appetite or weight
• Feeling sluggish, agitated, hopeless, worthless or guilty

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD may include:
• Tiredness or over-energy
• Oversleeping
• Appetite changes, specifically craving carbs
• Weight gain

Symptoms specific to summer-onset SAD may include:
• Trouble sleeping or insomnia
• Poor appetite/weight loss
• Agitation
• Anxiety

If a person thinks they may have a seasonal affective disorder, it may be profitable to see a psychologist and discuss your concerns regarding your symptoms.

How Is It Diagnosed?

The diagnosis should be made by a healthcare professional. A professional will be able to assess if the presenting symptoms are due to SAD, another type of mood disorder, or something else.

To meet the diagnostic criteria for SAD, a person must meet the criteria for major depression and the symptoms should coincide with specific seasons, either winter or summer months, for at least 2 years.

Since there is no specific test to diagnose SAD, a psychologist will most likely ask a patient the history of their symptoms.

How Do You Treat SAD?

There are multiple methods to manage seasonal affective disorder. Treatments may include antidepressants and talk therapy. There are also a few healthy habits a person may do on their own to combat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. These include:
• Exercise. Studies show that regular exercise can help boost mood and improve sleep
• Get as much natural sunlight as possible. Consider doing outdoor chores, sitting near a window, and being active early in the daytime to help feel more energetic.
• Talk to someone. Confiding in others about symptoms or getting help from a professional helps patients cope with SAD
• Eat healthy foods. Eating healthy meals can help keep your energy levels up. Stay away from alcohol and drugs as these can make depression worse.