Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Some Facts and Tips

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Some Facts and Tips

As you start to notice the days getting shorter and the sun setting earlier, it can be completely normal to feel a sense of sadness or depression. While feeling sad or down due to the change in weather and seasons can be a natural initial response to transition, a prolonged emotional response to seasonal change each year may be an indicator that you are experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which the DSM-V has now renamed Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. The Mayo Clinic describes SAD as "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons" beginning and ending at about the same times each year. For the majority of folks, symptoms will begin in the fall and last through the winter months causing a general moodiness and a feeling of low energy.

As we head into the fall and winter seasons, here are a few facts and tips to help you or a loved one better cope with seasonal affective disorder this year.     

1. symptoms of SAD

A person diagnosed with SAD may experience a number of symptoms including low energy, difficulty getting through a daily routine, irregular or disrupted sleep patterns leading to exhaustion, loss of libido, anxiety, irritability, unusual food cravings and depression. The depression that is experienced with SAD begins during a specific season every year, ends during a specific season every year, and does not occur during the season in which you experience a normal mood. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, symptoms must be experienced for at least 2 years. You may experience all or only some of these symptoms. It is also important to note that some of these symptoms may be an indicator of a larger or further mental health condition which you will want to ask your mental health provider about.

2. causes of SAD

Much of the research related to understanding the root causes of seasonal affective disorder points to three possible sources for the depression that we can experience at this time of year.

1) Circadian Rhythms: The first possibility relates to Circadian Rhythms. Often referred to as the "body clock," the circadian rhythm is a cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, eat--regulating many daily physiological processes. This internal body clock is affected by environmental cues, like sunlight and temperature. In the fall and winter as the days become shorter, we are exposed to less and less sunlight. The decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.   

2) Serotonin Levels: Another theory is that as you decrease exposure to sunlight in the fall and winter months, this causes a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that highly affects mood. When Serotonin levels drop, this can trigger depression which may explain feelings of sadness and depression often reported by those experiencing SAD.

3) Melatonin levels: Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the pineal gland and is directly  involved in regulating the sleeping and waking cycles, among other processes in the body. The change in season often disrupts the balance of the body's natural level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. This phenomenon may explain disruption to normal sleep patterns commonly experienced with the SAD diagnosis. 

3. Risk factors of sad

  • Being female: Four out of five people diagnosed with SAD are women. 
  • Age: Young people are at a higher risk of experiencing SAD than the elderly. 
  • A Family History of SAD
  • A Pre-existing diagnosis of Depression or Bipolar Disorder 
  • Living far from the equator

4. Treatments for sad

1) Light Therapy: Light therapy, also referred to as phototherapy, is a method of treating seasonal affective disorder and certain other conditions through exposure to artificial light created by a light box. A light box is a bright light unit within a portable box which houses balanced spectrum fluorescent tubes. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood which may relieve some symptoms of SAD. It really is as simple as it sounds: a small box emitting light. If you decide to pursue light therapy as part of your treatment plan, you can easily buy a light therapy box online (ask your doctor or mental health provider for tips on the best ones to purchase) and begin using the box for a few minutes or hours each day. It is important to develop a very specific regimen for light box use with your doctor or mental health provider before beginning treatment.

2) Medications: Some antidepressant medications have been recommended to counteract symptoms of SAD. An extended-release version of the antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin) may help prevent depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD. Other antidepressants also may commonly be used to treat SAD. 

3) Psychotherapy: Meeting with a mental health practitioner can be very useful in learning ways to manage and cope with seasonal affective disorder. More often than not, SAD is just one aspect of the greater mental health picture. Meeting for weekly individual sessions with a psychotherapist can greatly help those experiencing SAD to identify their symptoms, develop a solid treatment plan and create a sense of confidence in overcoming or managing this disorder.