Seasonal Affective Disorder

Photo of sun shining through dark forest trees.

We often hear about people feeling down on account of the “winter blues” - but in some cases, those bouts of sadness are much more serious. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that recurs during the same season each year. For most who suffer from SAD, this happens during the winter, though a small number experience SAD in the summer. SAD is more common in women, people between the ages of 15 and 55, and those who live farther from the equator where the difference in daylight from winter to summer is more extreme. SAD is sometimes also called “seasonal depression” or “winter depression.”

Not Just Winter Blahs

SAD is not a specific illness in itself, but instead is a subtype of major depression. The more common winter SAD and less common summer SAD differ somewhat in their symptoms. Those who suffer SAD in the winter are more likely to experience oversleeping and craving for foods high in carbohydrates. Those who experience SAD in the summer tend to exhibit insomnia and poor appetite. SAD can also occur in individuals with bipolar depression, with summer bringing periods of mania and winter bringing depression.

Scientists do not know precisely what causes seasonal affective disorder. The common hypothesis is that it has something to do with lack of sunlight and levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Among other things, serotonin affects mood, and many antidepressant medications work by altering serotonin levels. Exposure to sunlight can also affect serotonin levels. It’s believed as the amount of daily sunlight changes with the seasons, serotonin levels change and can potentially trigger SAD.

Getting Help

While it is normal to feel down or “blue” now and then, particularly during the winter months, if you have symptoms of depression most days for two weeks or more, you should consult with a doctor. Symptoms to watch out for include no longer taking joy in activities you previously enjoyed, problems at school or work, or abuse of substances like drugs and alcohol. In particular, seek help if your sleeping habits or appetite change or if you experience signs of suicidal thinking.

It’s hard to diagnose seasonal affective disorder specifically because it looks like other forms of depression or bipolar disorder that occur throughout the year. Your doctor may perform physical examinations to rule out problems with your thyroid or blood. To get a psychological diagnosis for SAD, according to the DSM-5, the condition must occur for two years and must begin and end during specific seasons without symptoms at other times of year. But in the meantime, much can be done to treat the suspected illness.

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder usually aims to regulate the conditions that are believed to cause it, namely exposure to sunlight and levels of serotonin. Light therapy involves a lamp or other source of light that mimics the full spectrum of the sun. This is generally the first course of treatment and appears to be effective for most patients. If light therapy doesn’t work, medications like antidepressants may help, but they can take several weeks compared to the few days it typically takes for light therapy to work.

If you think you are experiencing seasonal affective disorder or are looking for where to get help with mental health issues, Dickinson Center is here. Our staff can help during all seasons of the year. If you have any questions, please contact us