Seasonal Affective DisorderDo you get the “winter blues” or seasonal depression? Find yourself getting depressed at the same time every year?  There is a good chance you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Symptoms of SAD

SAD is often characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, loss of energy, oversleeping, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, changes in appetite, and difficultly concentrating.

However – how can you tell when it’s just a few days of sadness, or seasonal depression? When it starts interrupting with your life – personal relationships, work, school, etc.

Differences between seasonal and non-seasonal depression?

The way you know when depression is actually SAD, is when the depressive symptoms onset around fall/winter when the seasons change. Also, in SAD depressive symptoms start to alleviate around spring when the temperature increases, and days are longer. Also, for it to be seasonal depression, you must have had the seasonal depressive episodes for at least 2 consecutive years, without non-seasonal episodes.

Causes of SAD

As you have probably guessed by the description and title, one of the main causes is the decrease in exposure to natural daylight. This lack of sunlight leads to 4 different bodily changes that can lead to SAD.

  1. Your Circadian Rhythm
    Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock. there are specific receptors in your eyes that not only process your vision, but send messages to your body about what time of day it is based on the amount of sunlight. This body clock tells you when it’s time to go to sleep, and when it’s time to wake up. When your sleep cycle gets off track, it increases the chances you may experience depressive symptoms.
  2. Levels of Serotonin
     When levels of sunlight decrease, the levels of serotonin in your brain also tends to decrease. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood; a decrease in this neurotransmitter may also lead to symptoms of depression.
  3. Levels of Melatonin
    Melatonin is a hormone that also helps to regulate our sleep pattern and mood. The change in sunlight may play a role in reduction of this hormone.
  4. Vitamin D
    Lastly – Don’t forget that sunlight is our body’s main source of vitamin D – a vitamin in which most Americans are deficient. Studies have shown that a link exists between low-levels of Vitamin D, and higher incident rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Treatments for SAD

If you feel you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is important to see your doctor to see what types of treatments they feel will work best for you. However, there are a couple of treatments that are often used in treatment of SAD.

Light Therapy
Since a main cause of SAD is lack of appropriate sunlight, some healthcare providers suggest the use of a light box. The idea behind light therapy is that the light will mimic natural sunlight, and cause increases in your serotonin and melatonin levels and reset your body clock. This is often suggested as the first line of defense, as you can often see improvement of symptoms in 2-4 days. Additionally, there are generally no side effects. Before purchasing a light box, talk to your doctor to see if it is right for you, and for their suggestions as which is a high quality light box that would be beneficial. There are many light boxes, especially ones that are cheaply made. In light boxes, you do get what you pay for, so make sure you do your research!

Medications
Especially if SAD symptoms are severe, some people may benefit from use of antidepressants. Your doctor may suggest that you begin antidepressants before the fall season begins – before your symptoms begin. If your doctor suggests that you try antidepressants, remember that it may take a few weeks to see an effect.

Psychotherapy
While our environment and diet can change the chemistry in our brain, so can our patterns of thinking. Some doctors may suggest seeing a therapist/counselor for talk therapy. Therapy may help you identify and change negative thinking patterns and cognitive distortions. Therapy can also teach you healthy coping skills and ways to reduce stress.

For more information, check out these links below…

NAMI: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Vitamin D vs. Broad Spectrum Phototherapy in the treatment of SAD

Mayo Clinic: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder: The Winter Blues Diagnosis

Preparing for SAD: Recovery Defined by the Seasons

Scientific American: Seasonal Affective Disorder – The Basics

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder

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