Seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD, is a form of depression brought on by the change of seasons.

SAD is most commonly felt during the fall and winter months, however, there are some people who will experience seasonal depression through the spring and summer months, as well. 

It is estimated to affect approximately three to six million people in the United States alone, with women being four times more likely to suffer from it than men.

Luckily for those who experience SAD, their symptoms are temporary and will begin to alleviate once the seasons change. It is also highly treatable, with both at-home and doctor-ordered remedies available.

To fully understand how treatments can help, however, we must first familiarize ourselves with what causes SAD.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although the exact scientific reasoning for what causes seasonal affective disorder is thus far unknown, researchers have discovered high-probability contributing factors that may take some responsibility.

  • Circadian rhythm — Otherwise known as your biological clock, the decrease in sunlight during the fall and winter months can disrupt your body’s natural rhythms and allow you to become susceptible to depression.
  • Serotonin levels — Serotonin, which is a natural mood-boosting hormone that is released in your brain, is believed to increase in production through sunlight exposure. The loss of sunlight we experience during the latter part of the year may cause our serotonin levels to drop, triggering a seasonal depression.
  • Melatonin levels — Melatonin, a hormone that plays a vital role in your body’s natural sleep to wake cycle, is produced partly by exposure to light. With the seasonal change in daylight hours, you may experience a decrease in your melatonin production, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and changes to your overall mood.

Risk Factors for Developing Seasonal Affective Disorder

While it is not a guarantee that you will suffer from SAD because you have certain risk factors, medical research has been able to pinpoint a few possible causes that heighten one’s chances of experiencing seasonal depression.

They include:

  • Distance from the equator — Referring back to the possible causes of SAD, living on the far north side of the equator results in fewer daylight hours — effectively messing up your circadian rhythm and vitamin D intake.
  • History of mental health struggles — Specifically regarding major depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder, a diagnosis of these mental health issues appears to correlate with having a higher risk of developing SAD. Self-medicating with substances with a diagnosed mental health disorder may also worsen symptoms.1
  • Substance abuse — Many substances, such as alcohol, are considered to be depressants. And, while there may be temporary relief from depressive symptoms while under the influence, overuse of these substances has shown to permanently harm your brain, essentially leading to mental health issues — like depression.2

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

It is important to reiterate that SAD is not a disorder on its own, rather it is a type of depression that occurs only during certain times of the year.

Because of this, most of the symptoms mimic those of depression, such as:

  • Sadness, crying, and hopelessness
  • Anger, irritability, and agitation
  • Anxiety, restlessness, and trouble sleeping
  • Loss of interest in social activities
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts

Consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, as you may need intervention right away.

Although there is no blood test to tell whether or not you are indeed suffering from SAD, by speaking with a doctor about your symptoms and medical history, they will be able to determine if you are going through a seasonal depression or if there is something else that needs to be more closely examined to make a proper diagnosis.3

Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Depending on whether or not you’ve experienced SAD before and the severity of your symptoms, one or a combination of several treatment options are available to you — both through professional help as well as at-home options.

Always be sure to consult with a doctor to ensure that there are no underlying medical problems before beginning any type of treatment, as all treatments can have side effects.

Visit Your Doctor

Although it is rare for doctors to prescribe antidepressants for SAD, it is not unheard of in severe cases — especially with those who have a history of experiencing seasonal depression.

Because it can between four to six weeks for medication to take effect, your doctor may choose to prescribe you an antidepressant at the start of winter — before your symptoms typically begin — and have you continue it until springtime. 

Most commonly, doctors opt for prescribing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for those going through a seasonal depression, as these types of antidepressants are designed to increase the production of serotonin in your brain.4

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term behavioral treatment used to help a variety of mental health issues, including SAD.

The basis of CBT is to allow you to take large or overwhelming obstacles and break them down into small, more manageable increments. CBT therapists will attempt to adjust your behaviors and attitudes towards certain situations, effectively changing how you think, feel, and react.

Occasionally, your doctor may recommend a combination of antidepressants as well as CBT to help you cope through your seasonal depression.5

Light Therapy

The best form of light therapy you can get when you are experiencing symptoms of SAD is direct sunlight — as it is a natural source.

However, if you are unable to get enough natural light, light therapy may be a good option for you to try.

For most, a lightbox is the most common form of light therapy. This is a box that emits a light much brighter than that of a house lamp. A typical prescription for a lightbox is around 10,000 lux to be used anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours per day — the time of day to be decided between you and your doctor.

For some people, results are seen in as little as three to five days. Whereas others may not respond for up to two weeks. 

While you are adjusting, you may experience issues with your sleep, headaches, and eye strain. These symptoms appear to go away after a week of consistent use.6

Exercise

A known mood-booster, exercise releases endorphins — which are hormones that increase your mood while decreasing your pain.

It also:

  • Decreases anxiety
  • Improves your self-esteem
  • Helps you to get a more restful night’s sleep

The best exercises to reduce symptoms of SAD include:

  • Walking and running
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Strength training
  • Tai chi

The best part about exercising is that you do not have to push yourself hard to experience its benefits. Even 10 minutes a day will help release endorphins.

If you’re unable to get any formal exercise in, no need to worry. The simple act of grocery shopping or even household cleaning will allow you to reap the benefits.7

Resources:

 

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
  2. https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alcohol-and-depresssion
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad/treatment/
  5. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/cognitive-behavioral-therapy
  6. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/ty6702
  7. https://www.allinahealth.org/healthysetgo/move/easing-sad-effects-with-exercise
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