Also called seasonal depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition marked by feelings of depression and meaninglessness that occur at roughly the same time each year. SAD generally occurs during the winter months, although a rare form of seasonal depression known as summer depression or reverse SAD can be experienced during the warmer summer season.
Seasonal depression symptoms can be debilitating and overwhelming, but this highly treatable condition doesn’t have to rule your life. It’s important to seek help so you can learn to manage winter SAD and get through the season experiencing the joy you deserve from life.
Read on to learn more about what seasonal affective disorder is and what its causes, risk factors, diagnosis prerequisites, and treatment options are.
How Common is Seasonal Depression?
SAD is quite common. In fact, research shows that an estimated 5% of people in the US may struggle with SAD every year. For most people, the seasonal pattern of SAD starts in late autumn or early winter and continues into late spring or early summer.
“If you’re struggling with symptoms of SAD, know you’re not alone; there’s an estimated 10M Americans struggling with these symptoms each year. If you’re feeling symptoms that are similar to depression around the winter months in particular, it can be helpful to track your daily depressive symptoms, rate them on a 0-10 scale of intensity to note any changes, and reach out to a therapist to talk through how you’ve been feeling and what treatment options might feel best for you.”
As many as 25 million more Americans may experience a lesser form of SAD known as “the winter blues” or winter depression.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are multiple possible seasonal depression symptoms. The symptoms differ for those who suffer from SAD in the summer months relative to those who experience it during the winter.
Seasonal depression in fall or winter
As noted earlier, most people experience seasonal depression symptoms in the colder winter months. Associated symptoms are similar to those of general depression and can include:
- Feeling hopeless & exhausted
- Desire to be left alone
- Increased appetite
- Low energy levels
- Difficulty focusing
- Suicidal thoughts
- Weight gain
Many people with SAD feel down nearly every day. They may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, replacing them with increased eating and sleeping.
Seasonal depression in the summer or spring
Those who experience SAD during the summer months may have different symptoms, including:
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
However, the underlying feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and hopelessness are also often still present in summertime.
Seasonal Depression Causes
While research hasn’t been able to truly define a precise cause of SAD, some prevalent theories are being tested. Researchers believe that people with SAD may produce less serotonin, a brain chemical partially responsible for our mood.
Those with seasonal depression also seem to produce more melatonin, a hormone that’s responsible for regulating sleep. Their bodies typically produce too little vitamin D, which has direct and indirect roles in sleep regulation.
Another reason could also be your circadian rhythm. Because of shorter daylight hours, your body’s circadian rhythm may be disrupted which can cause depressive symptoms to develop.
Seasonal Depression Risk Factors
Certain factors have been linked to an increased chance of developing seasonal affective disorder, including gender, age, where you live, and having a family history of depression.
Women are about 4 times more likely to have SAD than men.
For most people, SAD begins during late adolescence or early adulthood.
Those who live furthest from the equator are more likely to develop seasonal depression symptoms. Shorter days and less sunlight is thought to make people more susceptible.
History of depression
Types of Treatment for SAD
Talking to a therapist who specializes in counseling those with SAD is an excellent place to begin healing.
Therapy or medication (or both)
Treatments for seasonal affective disorder differ by patient, depending on symptom severity and frequency. SAD treatment may involve a combination of a form of talk therapy known as online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prescription medications like antidepressants or beta-blockers.
Seasonal depression has been linked to less exposure to natural sunlight in the winter months. Lightboxes emit full-spectrum lighting, which is believed to induce antidepressant effects in some people. This isn’t a guaranteed cure for SAD, but it does help many people experience fewer and less severe SAD symptoms.
“Research shows that light therapy can be a supportive treatment option for people struggling with SAD, as results indicate that using this treatment consistently for several weeks minimum has shown to improve mood.”
There are several methods for combating the onset of SAD. Here’s how to deal with seasonal depression:
- Spending more time outside, even if the weather is cold. Get outside and enjoy the fresh air and natural sunshine. Even on cloudy days, the daylight penetrating through the cloud cover is still beneficial. If it’s too cold to go outside, try sitting by a window, opening the blinds, and absorbing the sunlight rays.
- Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of water-rich foods. Nutrition is so important when fighting off depression. Eating fatty fish, lean meats, green leafy vegetables like kale, nuts, cheese, and whole-grain foods can help chase away the blues.
- Engaging in semi-strenuous exercise to the point of perspiration at least 5 days every week. Exercise has countless benefits for your health, including the release of natural endorphins which beat down depression symptoms. If you work out in a gym, you’ll increase your chances for socialization, which is another helpful tool for combating depression.
- Waking up earlier in the mornings to increase your exposure to natural light. SAD normally occurs during the short days of winter when sunshine is minimized. Getting up and outside early can work as an effective natural antidepressant.
Mindfulness meditation, pranayama (intentional breathing), yoga, aromatherapy, hot Epsom salt baths, and sungazing are also recommended for battling depression, regardless of its cause. Explore these and other holistic tactics as part of your regular routine before your SAD sets in.
Getting Diagnosed & Finding Help
Doctors look for the following symptoms to diagnose seasonal affective disorder:
- Depression or mania that repetitively begins and ends at the same times each year
- Symptoms that self-resolve, disappearing during “normal” (warmer) seasons
- Symptoms that have repeated for at least 2 consecutive years
Answering the question: what is seasonal depression can be a bit tricky. It can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose because it shares symptoms with various other disorders marked by depression and/or mania — including bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), certain viral illnesses, and an underactive thyroid, to name a few.
It’s for this reason that seeking help is so imperative if you think you’re experiencing SAD symptoms. A doctor can rule out any other medical conditions, so you can begin effective, helpful treatment to help you get through the season.
Talkspace offers affordable, easy-to-access therapy in the comfort of your own home. Online therapy with experienced therapists can be your ticket to managing your seasonal affective disorder. Reach out today to learn more about how Talkspace can help you.
If your depression is severe or if you’re thinking of hurting yourself, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.