Summer days are gone. Autumn has begun. For many, this time of the year signals the launch of fall festivities, savory treats to indulge along with deliciously comforting fragrances that are sure to cozy you into the change in season with grace and poise – caramel apples, pumpkin spice donuts, mint hot chocolate, spearmint, eucalyptus. While this time of the year is indicative of shorter days, longer nights, and the arrival of winter. It is, for others, the start of an accompanying risk of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depressive disorder that strikes at the shifting of the seasons and is marked by changes in mood that vary from mild to severe (DSM-V., NAMI). Some may refer to it as winter depression, very different from the winter blues, as it can be debilitating and very overwhelming, shaping daily functioning, productivity, and overall wellness. Approximately five percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD (APA) during predictable months of the year. While people commonly experience depression symptoms during the cold fall and winter months, some people experience symptoms of SAD during the warm summer months (Melrose, S).
What are the symptoms of SAD?
It is important to note that symptoms of SAD may vary across several different factors, however common symptoms of SAD include alterations in mood – such as sadness, hopelessness, numbness, irritability – furthermore, changes in sleep, appetite, energy, loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, or in cases that are severe, suicidal ideation (APA).
Although the primary differentiating element concerning SAD symptoms is that it occurs seasonally, individuals experiencing SAD might also present with sustained depressed mood for periods greater than two weeks where there lies a propensity to develop lethargic depression versus irritability , which is why people experiencing this condition are prone to behaviors such as overeating and oversleeping.
How is it caused?
The evidence for SAD is related to the hormone, melatonin, which is discharged by the pineal gland that controls the sleep-wake cycle (Melrose, 2015). Lack of light stimulates the discharge of melatonin, grooming the body for sleep (Melrose, 2015). Simply put, as the fall and winter cold settles in, melatonin production in the body rises and people tend to be affected by this in ways that lead to increased feelings of lethargy, exhaustion, and sluggishness.
Alternatively, researchers have found that individuals with SAD may have difficulty regulating their levels chemically, where the neurotransmitter, serotonin, is influential on mood (NAMI., Melrose, 2015). In conclusion, research also suggests the role of Vitamin D in serotonin activity where less sunlight contributes to the body’s response of less Vitamin D (Melrose, 2015). Other factors found to increase a person’s chance of developing SAD include biological, environmental, and geographical influences.
How is SAD treated?
SAD can be successfully treated in many ways, including counseling or talk therapy, antidepressant medications, light therapy, Vitamin D supplementation or a combination of these. Self-care is also an important component of treatment (APA., Melrose, 2015). For those who experience SAD, it is important to:
- Take advantage of available sunlight and monitor your body’s internal clock
- Get creative by tapping into your inner artist
- Develop healthy eating and sleep habits
- Exercise in the morning
- Approach the cooler season with a positive attitude and reinforce it with self-affirmations
- Plan pleasurable, physical activities (outdoors if safe to do so)
- Seek out a healthy support network through relationships
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, imagery, and deep breathing
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
American Psychiatric Association
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015.
About the Author: Monica Caldwell, MA