With the ongoing stress of COVID-19 outbreaks and precautions, the stressful holiday season right around the corner, and normal daily worries and needs, you may be feeling unusually stressed or depressed this winter. For some people, this is just a normal fluctuation in mood, but for others it may signal a seasonal affective disorder, also called SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that follows the seasons. While it’s typically associated with winter (when it’s called winter depression), this condition can happen at any point in the year. That said, it usually begins in late fall or early winter and goes away by summer. While this condition usually resolves within a few months, it can have a serious impact on how a person feels and functions, especially for those already dealing with the symptoms of other mental health issues.
It’s not uncommon for people to experience seasonal fluctuation in moods. You may have noticed how a gray, rainy day makes you feel gloomy and tired, while a sunny day can leave you feeling cheerful and energized.
The longer, sunnier days of summer are often associated with better moods, while the shorter, darker days that begin in late fall and last throughout winter often align with an increase in SAD symptoms.
But full SAD goes beyond that—it’s a form of depression. Unlike the winter blues, SAD affects your daily life, including how you feel and think. Fortunately, treatment can help you get through this challenging time.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes seasonal depression. The most common theory is that the lack of sunlight in winter triggers the condition in people who are prone to getting it. But there are other theories about the causes of seasonal affective disorder, with a wide range of ideas.
Biological clock change
When someone has less exposure to sunlight, their biological clock shifts. This internal clock regulates mood, sleep and hormones. As a result of these changes, it’s suggested that some people may struggle to regular their moods.
Brain chemical imbalance
Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters send communications between nerves. These chemicals include serotonin, which contributes to feelings of happiness. People at risk of SAD may already have less serotonin activity. Since sunlight helps regulate serotonin, the lack of winter sun can make the situation worse. Serotonin levels can fall further, leading to mood changes.
Vitamin D deficiency
Serotonin also gets a boost from vitamin D. Since sunlight helps individuals produce vitamin D, less sun in the winter can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. That change is posited to affect serotonin and mood, thus causing seasonal affective disorder.
Melatonin is a chemical that affects sleep patterns. The lack of sunlight may stimulate an overproduction of melatonin in some people. They may feel sluggish and sleepy during the winter.
People with SAD often have stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts about the winter. Researchers aren’t sure if these negative thoughts are a cause or effect of seasonal depression. Some even theorize that SAD is just a reaction to stress during this time of year.
What Are the Symptoms of SAD?
Not everyone who has SAD experiences the same symptoms. Common symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:
- change in appetite, especially craving sweet or starchy foods
- weight gain
- sleeping more than normal
- difficulty concentrating
- irritability and anxiety
- increased sensitivity to rejection
- avoidance of social situations
- loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy
- feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- physical problems, such as headaches.
In a given year, about five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression. About 10% to 20% of people in America may get a milder form of the winter blues, but this rarely requires treatment. SAD is more common in younger people and women. You’re also at higher risk if you:
- Have another mood disorder, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder
- Have relatives with other mental health conditions, such as depression or schizophrenia
- Live at high latitudes (farther north of the equator), such as Alaska or New England
- Live in cloudy regions
People with other mental health conditions may also be at predisposed to develop seasonal affective disorder. Some of the most common co-occurring mental health conditions are:
- Anxiety disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Eating disorder
- Panic disorder
For those without pre-existing mental health conditions, seasonal affective disorder is often a minor disturbance. But for those who already deal with the effects of a mental health issue such as major depressive disorder or other mood disorders, seasonal affective disorder can make the symptoms worse and make treatment or management seem impossible.
How Is SAD Treated?
Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases of seasonal affective disorder. Although there have been no research findings to definitively link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin and reduce or eliminate the effects of seasonal affective disorder.
Talk therapy or behavioral therapy can help you identify negative thoughts. From there, you can replace those with more positive thoughts. Therapy can help you learn healthy ways to manage your symptoms of SAD and its associated stress.
If therapy does not work, an antidepressant drug may prove effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects. Using medication to treat seasonal affective disorder is a rare course of treatment, and it is usually only used when SAD is co-occurring with another mental health issue.
Getting Help With Seasonal Affective Disorder
As the days get darker and the nights get longer, it’s easy to feel depressed and hopeless, but there is always hope for those dealing with mental health issues. At Georgetown Behavioral Health Hospital, our mission is to provide quality treatment and care for those suffering from mental health problems and help give them the environment and tools they need to take back control of their life.
If your seasonal affective disorder feels like it has become too much to handle, or if you have underlying mental health issues that SAD is making overwhelming, Georgetown Behavioral Hospital is here to help. Our treatment staff at our mental health facility, located near Cincinnati, Ohio, has proudly served the Georgetown community for years, and our doors have always been open to those in need.
Seasonal mood shifts are common, but sometimes seasonal depression may represent a serious condition that can impact your well-being and ability to function normally, especially if you are already struggling with the symptoms of other mental health issues.
At our mental health center, we use an interdisciplinary approach, providing services from doctors, psychotherapists, nurses, and other health care staff. In this way, we administer care that addresses mental health concerns from all angles to give you the best possible chance at recovery. By employing a variety of evidence-based therapies, we help our patients learn to manage their symptoms and live healthily.