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Feeling the Winter Blues? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

By Rachel Parodneck, LMSW

2020 has been a year that has brought immeasurable trauma for many people. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the significant racism in this country that has led to the necessity of the BLM movement, sky-high unemployment rates, a divisive election, and now Daylight Savings time reducing our hours of sunlight, there are a plethora of reasons why you may be feeling down. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may be one of them.

What is it?

SAD is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. Therefore, the signs and symptoms of SAD include those associated with major depression.

SAD is estimated to affect 10 million Americans. Another 10-20% may have mild SAD. To be diagnosed with SAD, an individual must meet criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons for at least two years. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. The age of onset is estimated to be between the ages of 18 and 30.

Signs and Symptoms:

According to the Mayo Clinic, the below is a list of common symptoms experienced by those suffering from depression and specifically SAD. (Not every person with SAD will experience all of the symptoms listed below).

Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

What causes it?

Research has shown that people with SAD may have less activity of the brain chemical serotonin, which helps to regulate mood. Sunlight helps the body to maintain normal serotonin levels but in people with SAD, this regulation does not work properly. The result is reduced serotonin levels in the winter months.

The National Institute of Mental Health informs us that, “both serotonin and melatonin help maintain the body’s daily rhythm that is tied to the seasonal night-day cycle. In people with SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt the normal daily rhythms. As a result, they can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes. Deficits in vitamin D may exacerbate these problems because vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin activity. In addition to vitamin D consumed with diet, the body produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight on the skin. With less daylight in the winter, people with SAD may have lower vitamin D levels, which may further hinder serotonin activity.

How do you treat it?

Treatments are available that can help many people with SAD. They fall into four main categories that may be used alone or in combination:

  • Light therapy: Light therapy exposes people with SAD to a very bright light box every day for 30-45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, beginning in the fall and lasting through spring. Certain people with light sensitivity should not use light therapy. To get the best results, consult your doctor for a recommendation for the specific light box that will work for you.
  • Vitamin D:  Dubbed the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D3 (the most common form of Vitamin D) is most commonly used for SAD symptom relief in the nutrient category.
  • Psychotherapy: Talk therapy and CBT have proven very effective in the treatment of SAD. Book an appointment with a Refresh psychotherapist today!
  • Antidepressant medications: Often prescribed when psychotherapy and light therapy alone don’t work, it can be very important to get a psychiatric evaluation if your symptoms persist.

Psychology Today notes that self-care is an important part of treatment. For those with SAD, it is important to

  • Monitor mood and energy level
  • Take advantage of available sunlight
  • Plan pleasurable activities for the winter season
  • Plan physical activities
  • Approach the winter season with a positive attitude
  • When symptoms develop seek help sooner rather than later.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it is very important to make an appointment with your primary care doctor who can rule out any medical concerns and can help you find a psychiatrist, a therapist, or both. They can also advise you on the best light therapy for you.

The winter blues don’t have to be a dreaded inevitability. Although we are unable to control many aspects of our world today, SAD is something that is possible to treat. You don’t need to suffer this winter. With these treatment options in your toolkit, there is hope that this season you will be able to enjoy the winter months and feel that holiday cheer.

 

 

References:

Mayo Clinic. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651

National Institute of Mental Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml

Psychology Today. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder#:~:text=Seasonal%20affective%20disorder%20is%20estimated,in%20women%20than%20in%20men.

Rohan, K., (2013). American Psychological Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder Sufferers Have More Than Just Winter Blues. Retrieved from:

https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/02/seasonal-disorder