Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder that occurs in people who display no other mental health symptoms or issues throughout the year. They exhibit depressive symptoms at the same time each year, most commonly in winter, however it is possible to experience SAD during other seasonal changes as well.
Signs and Symptoms of SAD
In most cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms will appear during late autumn or early winter and will end during the seasonal changes and warmer days of spring and summer. Some people experience symptoms that begin in spring or summer and disappear in late autumn or early winter. With either case, symptoms may begin mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Symptoms may include:
- Feeling depressed most days, and all day
- Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyed
- Low energy
- Problems sleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Feeling agitated or sluggish
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or feeling worthless
- More extreme symptoms- thoughts of suicide or dying
Some symptoms that are specific to autumn and winter SAD include:
- Craving foods that are high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Low energy and feeling tired
Some symptoms that are specific to spring and summer SAD include:
- Poor appetite
- Weight Loss
- Anxiety or feeling agitated
Possible Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
A reduced level of sunlight in autumn and spring may cause an onset of SAD. The decrease of sunlight may disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, leading to feelings of depression.
A drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that affects mood, may also contribute. Reduced sunlight may cause a drop in serotonin that can trigger depression.
Melatonin levels, which control sleep and mood patterns may be disrupted, also causing depression.
Associated Risk Factors
Seasonal Affective Disorder is more common in women than men. It is also more prevalent in younger adults than older adults.
Other contributing factors may include Family history. It is not uncommon for SAD to run in families, or families where other forms of depression are experienced.
A person who has major depression or bipolar disorder may find that their symptoms of depression worsen seasonally. This is something that can be discussed with your doctor.
People who live further from the equator may be more prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, due to longer days of sunlight in summer, and shorter days of sunlight in winter.
Seasonal Affective Disorder may be difficult to diagnose. If you are experiencing depression or increased depression that seems to be affected by seasonal changes, it is important to speak with your doctor about your symptoms and how you are feeling
The symptoms of SAD may often be confused with other mental health conditions that cause similar symptoms. Generally a GP is the first point of contact. The GP may do a complete physical exam to determine any underlying causes that may be causing the depression. They will ask a series of questions to assist with diagnosis.
A psychological evaluation may be performed to check signs of depression, including thoughts, feelings, symptoms, or changed behaviour. If necessary you may be referred to a specialist such as a psychologist or psychiatrist for further assessment or treatment.
Treatment may include some Light Therapy, medication if necessary and psychotherapy. It is important to advise the doctor if you have bipolar disorder because medications may trigger a manic episode.
Light therapy or phototherapy, requires sitting a few feet from a special light that exposes the person to bright light. This is usually done within an hour of waking up each day. It can change brain chemicals that are linked to mood. Generally there is an improvement within a few days to a few weeks and has been effective in relieving symptoms without side effects. This should be discussed with a doctor before beginning self treatment.
Medication may be prescribed, such as an antidepressant, but is generally used for more severe symptoms. It may also help to prevent further episodes. It may take a few weeks for the medication to begin working and often times it is necessary to try different medications in order to find the one that works best.
Psychotherapy is used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, using CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It is useful to learn techniques to manage stress, cope with the symptoms of SAD, and identify negative thoughts and behaviours contributing to feeling unwell.
Lifestyle changes may also assist in managing the symptoms of SAD. Try to allow as much light as possible into your environment at work and home. Being outdoors helps to be in sunlight, or just be outdoors if it is cloudy. Exercise is important to relieve stress and anxiety. It can also assist in mood changes and an overall sense of wellbeing. This can be in the form of walking, yoga, gentle exercise, or more strenuous exercise such as running.
Feeling down at times is a normal part of life. If it continues however for longer periods, and is affecting your daily activities and motivation, it is recommended that you see a doctor. It’s a good idea to discuss symptoms as soon as possible with your doctor, especially if other changes are obvious, such as loss of appetite, sleeping more, self medicating with alcohol or other drugs, or thoughts of feeling hopeless or suicidal.
A GP is the best starting point to discuss initial feelings and symptoms. They will then determine what if any treatment may be needed, as well as referrals to other support services.
If you are helping a person with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or suspect that someone may be showing signs of SAD, try to be supportive without passing judgement.
- Avoid telling the person to just snap out of it. Although their symptoms may not seem real to you, it is very real to them and they need support and understanding.
- Encourage the person to seek professional help and persist with it if their symptoms continue or if they become more distressed.