Seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as SAD, can easily be brushed off as just a “meh” feeling during the winter months. It’s often thought to just be “winter blues.” But SAD is actually a type of depression that’s linked to the changes in season — and it can result in complications when not addressed.
Typically, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder begin in the fall and continue through winter. Most people who suffer from SAD describe the disorder as a lack of energy and a feeling of moodiness. It is possible for SAD to continue into spring and early summer.
So how do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder? And what should you do if you do? We’re breaking down everything you need to know about SAD in this blog post.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
With SAD, it’s typical for symptoms to start out on the milder side and get more severe as the season goes on. Those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder usually experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feeling down or depressed through the majority of the day, every day
- Experiencing low energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed
- Sluggishness or agitation
- Trouble concentrating
- A feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
- Changes in your appetite or weight
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
People who suffer from winter-onset SAD, which is often referred to as winter depression, often complain of the following as well:
- Regularly oversleeping
- Weight gain
- Low energy or tiredness
- Changes in appetite, especially a craving for high-carb foods
Although less common, summer-onset seasonal affective disorder can bring along the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Anxiety or agitation
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Although the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder is still not known, it is believed that some factors may play a role.
Your Circadian Rhythm
Also known as your biological clock, your circadian rhythm is impacted by the reduced level of sunlight that occurs during the fall and winter months. The lack of sunlight can cause a disruption in your body’s internal clock, which may lead to you feeling depressed.
Your Serotonin Levels
A reduction in sunlight can also force a drop in serotonin — a brain chemical that impacts your mood. The lack of serotonin in your brain may trigger depression.
Your Melatonin Levels
During the winter months, it’s possible for your body’s level of melatonin to be affected by the change in season. This can directly impact your sleep patterns and mood.
Should I See a Doctor for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It can be difficult to differentiate between common sluggishness during the winter months and seasonal affective disorder; however, it’s important that you learn how to identify SAD so you can see a doctor if needed.
If you notice you feel down for several days in a row and lack the motivation to do the activities that you typically enjoy, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your doctor. It’s especially important to see a doctor if your sleep patterns or appetite have changed or if you notice you turn to alcohol or relaxation or comfort.
If you start to feel hopeless or have thoughts of suicide, you should seek medical attention immediately.
How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?
There are several ways that seasonal affective disorder can be treated, including light therapy, medications and psychotherapy. Those suffering from bipolar disorder should discuss this with their doctor as it will impact the type of treatment prescribed for them.
Perhaps the most common form of treatment for SAD is light therapy, also called phototherapy. During light therapy, you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up every day, mimicking the light from the outdoors. This causes the brain chemicals that are linked to mood to change.
Light therapy is usually recommended first since it is the most non-evasive treatment. It normally begins working in as little as a few days and the side effects are minimum. Although research on light therapy is still limited, it does appear to be extremely effective for those who suffer from SAD symptoms.
Although light therapy is typically a great option for treating SAD, it’s still a good idea to speak with your doctor before you purchase a lightbox. He or she can help you better understand the features and options that you need so you can purchase the correct product.
In some cases, it may be necessary to begin medication to help treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, specifically if the symptoms are severe. Antidepressant medications are typically used in these cases.
It’s important to note that it could take several weeks before you notice a full recovery from medication, and you may need to try multiple medications before you discover which one works well for you. You should aim for a medication with few side effects when possible.
Another option for treating SAD is psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. This type of treatment is usually used to help identify and change the negative thoughts and behaviors that are worsening symptoms and learn how to cope with SAD. Psychotherapy is also key in learning how to manage stress, which will help to minimize symptoms as well.
In addition to the prescribed treatment, it’s a good idea to take a few steps of your own to help treat SAD. This includes creating a more sunny and bright environment by doing things like opening blinds and trimming tree branches that keep sunlight from getting in your home.
Taking long walks and spending time outdoors, even if it’s cold or cloudy, can do wonders in treating the symptoms of SAD. It’s recommended that you spend some time outdoors within two hours of waking up in the morning. Regular exercise is also crucial.
If you believe you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder and want to talk with a qualified medical professional, visit your local CareNow®. We’ve got more than 150 locations throughout the U.S. — each open 7 days a week, after hours and on the weekend.
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