As Daylight Savings begins, we tend to notice an upswing in seasonal depression. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression triggered by a change in seasons. This seasonal depression worsens when the temperatures drop and the days get shorter in the late fall or early winter before ending in the sunnier days of spring. Some people get a rare form of SAD called “summer depression” that starts in the late spring or early summer and ends in the fall.
Around 10% - 20% of Americans suffer from a mild version of SAD known as the “winter blues.” It is normal to feel a little down during colder months when you may be stuck inside and it gets dark early; however, full SAD goes beyond this. It’s a form of clinical depression. Unlike the winter blues, SAD affects your daily life and activities, including how you feel and think. About 5% of adults in the U.S experience seasonal depression. It tends to start in young adulthood (usually between 18 and 30), and seasonal depression affects women four times more than men, though researchers aren’t sure why.*
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression symptoms may start mild and become more severe as the season progresses. Once the depression hits, often lasting 4-5 months, the symptoms mimic those of nonseasonal depression, including loss of motivation for work or other activities, reduced social contact, and anxiety. The difference is that the onset of the SAD episode is predictable, and countermeasures can begin before the mood swing is severe. In that sense, those affected with seasonal depression are able to notice warning signs a bit easier than their cohorts with nonseasonal depression. ***
Signs and symptoms of Seasonal Depression may include:**
· Feeling listless, sad, or down most of the day, nearly every day
· Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
· Having low energy and feeling sluggish
· Arms and legs that feel heavy
· Having problems with sleeping too much
· Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain
· Having difficulty concentrating
· Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
· Having thoughts of not wanting to live
Fall and Winter SAD
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression or winter blues, may include:
· Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
· Weight gain
· Tiredness or low energy
Spring and Summer SAD
Symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, sometimes called summer depression, may include:
· Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
· Poor appetite
· Weight loss
· Episodes of violent behavior
· Restlessness, agitation, or anxiety
· Increased irritability
Healthy Ways to Manage SAD
The good news is there are several evidence-backed ways to find relief.
Bright light therapy
Since the 1980s, light therapy has been a mainstay for the treatment of SAD. It aims to expose those with seasonal depression to a bright light every day to make up for the diminished natural sunshine in the darker months. This involves sitting in front of a light therapy box, which mimics outdoor light, from fall to spring for about 30 minutes every day right when you wake up, preferably early in the morning (before 8 a.m.). This should stimulate your body to produce the right hormones to increase your wakefulness and alertness to get you through the day.
When searching for a light therapy lamp, you want one that advertises 10,000 lux brightness — the equivalent of a bright summer morning. A good light therapy lamp should also be “full spectrum,” meaning it emits light that closely mimics natural morning sunlight. ****
Because SAD, like other types of depression, is associated with disturbances in serotonin activity, antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are also used to treat seasonal depression when symptoms occur. These agents can significantly enhance patients' moods. Commonly used SSRIs include fluoxetine, citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, and escitalopram.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has approved another type of antidepressant, bupropion, in an extended-release form, that can prevent the recurrence of seasonal major depressive episodes when taken daily from the fall until the following early spring.
All medications can have side effects. Talk to your doctor about the possible risk of using these medications for your condition. You may need to try several different antidepressant medications before finding one that improves your symptoms without causing problematic side effects. *****
Because many people with SAD often have vitamin D deficiency, nutritional supplements of vitamin D may help improve their symptoms. However, studies testing whether vitamin D is effective in SAD treatment have produced mixed findings, with some results indicating that it is as effective as light therapy but others detecting no effect. *****
Simply going outside can help boost your mood. Even if it looks a little gray, the quality of light on a winter morning will be better than what you can get in your home and an excursion will most likely boost your mental health.
With a little creativity and problem-solving, you can still find ways to enjoy the season you are in. If your favorite summer activity is lying by the beach, you might come up with a version of that like lying on a sled and heading down a snowy hill. Even snowshoeing or ice skating could help you positively engage with an otherwise gray winter.****
Therapy for Seasonal Depression
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy aimed at helping people learn how to cope with difficult situations; CBT also has been adapted for people with SAD (CBT-SAD). It focuses on replacing negative thoughts related to the winter season (e.g., about the darkness of winter) with more positive thoughts. CBT-SAD also uses behavioral activation, which helps individuals identify and schedule pleasant, engaging indoor or outdoor activities to combat the loss of interest they typically experience in the winter.
When researchers directly compared CBT with light therapy, both treatments were equally effective in improving SAD symptoms. Some symptoms got better faster with light therapy than with CBT. However, a long-term study that followed SAD patients for two winters found that the positive effects of CBT seemed to last longer over time. *****
Seasonal Affective Disorder is something many people experience, and there are many healthy ways to treat and prevent it. If you or someone you know is looking for professional help with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), please give us a call at 214-363-2345 to get more information and schedule an appointment.