Important Things You Need To Know About: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. A lot of us can get the “winter blues” a mild change in mood and energy in response to the decrease of sun and the cold weather. The winter season can make us want to hibernate.  However for some people, the symptoms are more intense and can interfere with our day-to-day life functioning. Seasonal Affect Disorder can cause depression symptoms that cause fatigue even with enough sleep, sad or low mood and a significant decrease in energy, concentration and attention that can last for months.
In most cases, Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms appear during late fall (November) or early winter and go away during the sunnier weather returns in late winter/early spring. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.
Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day;
  • Crying or feel like crying;
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed (hobbies, work, socializing etc.);
  • Isolating or withdrawing from family and friends;
  • Having low energy and/or fatigue;
  • Sleep problems (insomnia and/or oversleeping);
  • Changes in your appetite or weight;
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated;
  • Having difficulty concentrating;
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty;
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide;

About 2% to 3% of Canadians will experience SAD in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form of SAD that leaves them only slightly depressed, but still able to live their life without major disruptions. People with seasonal affective disorder make up about 10% of all depression cases. There are some groups of people who are at higher risk of seasonal affective disorder.

  • Adults—are at higher risk of SAD than children and teenagers. After the age of 50, the risk of SAD starts to decline. Researchers aren’t yet sure why.
  • Women—may be more likely to experience SAD. Some research found that women may be up to nine times more likely to be diagnosed than men.
  • People in more northern countries or cities—are more likely to experience SAD than those who live close to the equator. The amount of daylight you receive changes as you move north, and that change is thought to be part of SAD. 

Fall and Winter SAD
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

  • Oversleeping;
  • 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;
  • Agitation or anxiety;

Don’t brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder may include lifestyle changes, light therapy, supplements, medications, and psychotherapy.

Lifestyle Changes
There are things you can do that can help alleviate some SAD symptoms.

  •  Ensure you have a good sleep hygiene and get enough quality sleep every night. Sleep is when the body restores and heals, so adequate sleep is going to be important during any difficult time, including during SAD symptoms.
  • Paying attention to your diet and eating foods that give you energy instead of foods that contribute to sluggishness, will also be an important lifestyle component you can take charge of. Try to resist overdoing the carbs as you may have cravings during this time.
  • Because SAD is a seasonal disorder due to changes in sunlight, it is important to try to get outside and get some sun every day during the long winter months.
    • Taking a walk at lunch time or break time while the sun is out can help alleviate symptoms because you will be getting some sun as well as fresh air and exercise.
    • Keeping your curtains open during the day
    • Sit near a sunny place
    • Some people try to take a vacation during the winter months and go to a sunnier, warmer place to get some sun to help cope through a long winter
  • Exercise is a nature’s best anti-depressant and anti-anxiety. Making sure you get enough of the right kind of exercise for you will help to reduce SAD symptoms and build energy as well as great preventative measure for warding off illness, stress and increasing your overall wellness and resiliency.

Light therapy
In light therapy, also called photo-therapy, you sit a few feet from a special lamp so that you’re exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Before you purchase a SAD lamp, talk with your doctor about the best one for you, and familiarize yourself with the variety of features and options so that you buy a high-quality product that’s safe and effective.

Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe.
Your doctor may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year. He or she may also recommend that you continue to take the antidepressant beyond the time your symptoms normally go away.
You can also talk to your doctor about supplements, such as vitamin D that may be helpful as well.

Psychotherapy is another option to treat SAD. A type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy can help you:

  • Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse;
  • Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD;
  • Learn how to manage stress;

Mind-body connection
Examples of mind-body techniques that some people may choose to try to help cope with SAD include:

  • Relaxation techniques such as yoga or taichi;
  • Meditation;
  • Guided imagery;
  • Music or art therapy;

SAD can make a season feel longer and have a negative impact on your mood, your work, your social life, and your day-to-day life. There are things you can do to help. Don’t suffer alone with Seasonal Affect Disorder.