Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression. For most people, it occurs during the same season every year. 90% of people who deal with SAD and its symptoms are triggered either in the Fall or the Winter.
It can be difficult to distinguish SAD from other forms of depression. You could have experienced a seasonal affective disorder if you felt depressed or the symptoms of depression over the last two consecutive annual seasons, but felt better once that season was over. If you experienced symptoms in Winter, for example, you would then feel better in the Spring and Summer.
Some people experience their seasonal affective disorder in the Spring or Summer instead of the Fall or Winter.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of SAD?
If you have a seasonal affective disorder, it may offer numerous signs and symptoms of varying severity. There is no one specific way that SAD occurs. It is an individual experience.
In general terms, you may have a seasonal affective disorder if you experience these symptoms in two consecutive years or more during the same season.
#1. You feel sad, moody, or anxious more than usual. This may cause you to lose interest in the things that you used to find fun and entertaining.
#2. You lose an interest in social activities, preferring to stay at home instead of interacting with others. This may include your professional responsibilities.
#3. You feel an urge to eat foods that are high in carbohydrates. This often represents itself as wanting to eat pasta, bread, and cereal on a frequent basis.
#4. You gain weight, even if you are trying to lose weight.
#5. You don’t feel refreshed after sleeping, even if you have received the recommended 7-9 hours (or the amount recommended for your age group).
#6. You have trouble concentrating that is above and beyond what you normally experience.
The symptoms of SAD are rarely consistent. They may come and go, be mild one day and severe the next, or change from year-to-year.
What Causes a Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It is believed that a lack of sunlight causes a vast majority of the seasonal affective disorders that are caused. This is because when there is a lack of sunlight, a person’s biological clock can be disrupted and changes their sleep-wake pattern.
As these patterns change, there can be changes to the serotonin and cortisol production that occurs in the brain. This affects how a person feels and their overall mood, which does not restore until the normal patterns are stabilized.
There is a belief that changes to a person’s schedule or routine can also be a trigger for SAD, especially in the 10% of people who experience their seasonal affective disorder in the Spring or Summer months. There may also be a negative self-body image, low self-esteem, or reduce confidence that plays a role in the development of SAD.
Most people will begin to experience their first symptoms in September and then begin feeling better around April. For Summer SAD, the months are reversed, having it start in April.
Who Can Get a Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It is possible for anyone of any age to experience SAD, but it is more common to specific demographics.
- Women are more likely to experience SAD compared to men.
- Population groups who live far from the equator, where winter daylight hours are much shorter, are more likely to experience Fall or Winter triggers for SAD.
- Population groups closer to the equator are more likely to experience Spring or Summer triggers for SAD.
- People between the ages of 15-55.
- People who have a first-degree relative who has experienced SAD.
Even though it may be referred to as “seasonal depression” or “winter depression,” it is the same thing as SAD and should be treated the same way.
The risks of experiencing a seasonal affective disorder decline as a person ages. It is rare to experience SAD when 14 years of age or younger and even more rare for people above the age of 65.
How Is SAD Diagnosed?
Even if you strongly suspect that you may be experiencing a seasonal affective disorder, it is important to receive a diagnosis from a medical professional. There are many physical and mental health conditions that can mimic the signs and symptoms of SAD. These must be eliminated to ensure there is no additional risk to personal health.
When you visit your doctor, you will be asked about feeling depressed during specific seasons. You may be asked about when you feel hungry or what your eating habits may be.
You will need to have blood tests to rule out having a thyroid condition or other physical health issues that can cause similar symptoms.
A mental health assessment may also be requested so that you can get a better idea of how you feel. This will also be able to help your doctor determine your ability to remember, reason, and think with clarity.
How Is SAD Treated After It Has Been Diagnosed?
There are two types of light therapy that are usually recommended for individuals who are experiencing the signs and symptoms of SAD.
The first is the use of light therapy. Bright light treatments are placed on a table or desk close to the face. Then you sit in front of the light while you complete your daily tasks. You can complete your light therapy while eating breakfast, reading a book, or even while working at a computer.
An artificial dawn may also be recommended. This type of treatment adjusts your sleeping cycle to a balanced rhythm, waking you up as a natural sunrise would.
Most light therapy sessions are prescribed to be 30 minutes in length, but it may extend for up to 2 hours. The length of time depends on the strength of the light and how long you have been using light therapy.
It typically takes 7-14 days for the signs and symptoms of SAD to begin reducing with light therapy. That means the time to act is now. Speak with your doctor, find the best light therapy boxes and sunrise alarms to meet your needs, and you’ll be able to get to work on feeling better.