Mental Health / Resources

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD or Seasonal Depression, is a type of depression that happens with the change in seasons. It begins and ends around the same time every year. The majority of people start feeling symptoms in the fall when the days start getting shorter, and symptoms stay steady through the winter until spring; it starts to let up when daylight starts to increase. There is also an inverse version of SAD, where some people experience depression only during the summer (sunnier) months.

Important: If you are in crisis right now, call the SAMHSA’s National Helpline. This is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year service for people or family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

SAD has the same symptoms as general depression, but they only show up during certain seasons. People with SAD might have decreased energy, mood changes, an increase in appetite for carbohydrate-rich food (though summer SAD can decrease appetite), sleep problems, loss of interest in socializing or activities, feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, agitated, brain fog or slower thinking, body aches and pains, and negative thinking.

SAD is TREATABLE. Treatments can include light therapy, modified diet and exercise, psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of any of the above.

SAD can be mild or severe. Sometimes people with SAD assume that winter is a hard time for everyone, and don’t recognize it as SAD as they assume everyone has a harder time in the winter. But not everyone struggles through winter, so if you DO feel badly, don’t feel like it has to be this way, or that you have to “power through” without help. Many symptoms of SAD can be prevented, and left untreated, mild cases can become more severe.

One day here and there of feeling down is normal, but if it goes beyond that – like if your lifestyle starts to shift because your sleep, activity level, or thoughts are affected, or if you’re turning to alcohol or other substances for comfort – it’s time to take action. Start by seeing a doctor or talking to someone. There is a community of SAD professionals and fellow friends that are here to help. You are NOT alone, and experiencing this is NOT your fault.

Is SAD Real? What’s the science behind it?

There are several theories of why SAD happens – the body is so complex and each body is chemically different. SAD may occur for a variety of reasons and varies from person to person. But a few key things that may affect SAD and explain why light plays an important role are:

Anyone can be affected, but women in the age range of 20 to 40 are more diagnosed – some sources say women are affected 4 times as much as men. A woman’s fluctuation in hormones could be a key contributor. Women might also be more likely to seek out help and as a result, be the ones diagnosed.

People who live farther from the equator are more affected than those who live closer to the equator. There is less sunlight during the winter in areas farther from the equator.

People who already have depression or bipolar disorder, or have other health challenges that get worse seasonally (autoimmune disorders, for example) can see their depression intensify seasonally.

I think I have SAD. What do I do?

Talk to your doctor.

Ask for a blood panel to check if there are any vitamin deficiencies that could be contributing to your blues or depression. Ask about Vitamin D or other supplements, light therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, lifestyle changes, or medication. One of these (or a combination) are all things a doctor can help you navigate! 

Next, educate yourself on SAD and experiment with what works for YOU. The SAD diagnosis is a relatively new one, and more research is being done. Since everyone’s body chemistry is different, experiences with SAD vary from person to person. You know yourself better than anyone else. With some education on SAD and the knowledge of your own experiences, you may be able to help yourself better than anyone else! 

Talk about it. You’re not alone. The more you share what you’re going through with those you love, the better they’ll know how to help. And the more you share what you’re going through, the more you’ll realize that many others around you feel the exact same way. It goes a long way knowing you aren’t alone.

Here are resources to get started on your SAD education. SAD is treatable, and there is hope. You can survive, and better yet, even ENJOY winter. 

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