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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? (AKA: SAD)

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

This may be hard to believe, but the change in seasons from Fall to winter months may cause a type of depression in some people. This type of depression is called Seasonal affective disorder (SAD or season depression). Yes, this is a real disorder! SAD will usually begin and end around the same time every year. However, it should be noted that some individuals do not experience symptoms every year. This disorder often presents with a loss of interest or enjoyment in activities, a noticeable decrease in energy and an overall depressed mood amongst other symptoms which are discussed in more detail below. In some instances, these symptoms and mood changes can be quite noticeable and can affect how a person might feel physically, their mental thought process and how they perform their normal activities of daily living.

And even more interesting is that these symptoms usually go away during the spring and summer months when the sun is out more, and the days are longer. This disorder is often overlooked, so if you notice changes in your normal mood pattern and behavior when the season changes, you may want to further investigate rather you are suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

SAD symptoms typically can last about 4 to 5 months per year. The symptoms of SAD can also be very similar to those associated with major depression. SAD can begin at any age but is more common in younger adults and affects women more than it does men; researchers are not exactly sure why this is the case. About 5% of the US population experience SAD.

There can be various other symptoms associated with SAD, but most commonly the symptoms tend to be the following:

• Extreme fatigue and decreased energy levels often feeling sluggish.

• An overall feeling of sadness, depressed mood for most of the day.

• Changes in appetite, eating more, especially craving carbohydrates.

• Trouble concentrating and feeling irritated and/or agitated.

• Loss of interest in activities that usually bring pleasure, social withdrawal.

• Oversleeping and/or sleeping issues.

• Feelings of hopelessness or lack of self-esteem.

So, what causes SAD?

Well, unfortunately researchers do not know exactly what causes SAD. But the lack of sunlight may trigger the disorder. However, there are other variables that should be noted that may be attributed to the onset of this SAD like Vitamin D deficiency, Brain chemical imbalances, and Melatonin boost. One of the key points to take away from this discussion is if you are experiencing some or all these symptoms to not try to diagnose yourself, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible to get a thorough evaluation as it may be another medical reason for your onset of symptoms.

While there is no imaging scan or blood test that can diagnose SAD, your healthcare provider can still recommend that other tests be done to rule other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. The frequency and the duration of your symptoms will definitely assist your provider with diagnosing SAD as it is related to the change of seasons only. Once a diagnosis of SAD is made, there are treatment options available to help improve the symptoms related to SAD. Although the healthcare provider will go more in depth about the treatment options available, here are a few of treatment options that can help alleviate some of the debilitating symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, AKA CBT: This is a form of talk therapy. Talk therapy has been shown by research to have the longest lasting treatment approach.

  • Certain Anti-depressant medications are prescribed for the depression: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the type of antidepressants that are most prescribed to treat SAD.

  • Light Therapy: Which uses Bright light therapy, usually with a special lamp. This method involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits a very bright light, while filtering out harmful ultraviolet UV rays of course. This therapy usually requires about 20 minutes or more per day.

  • Vitamin D: Sometimes taking a vitamin D supplement daily may help improve symptoms of SAD.

  • Increasing the amount of sunlight by spending more time outdoors, opening the blinds/curtains during the day to let sunlight enter your home and/or office.

If you or someone you love have severe depression symptoms, please consult your healthcare provider immediately or seek help at the closest emergency room.

SAD is a very manageable condition, and while SAD symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, just know that SAD symptoms can effectively be managed by various treatment options which can improve symptoms faster versus waiting on the season to change.

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