The winter season means a time of sadness for an increasing number of people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually starting in the fall and continuing through the winter months.
Symptoms, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, are usually the same as with other forms of depression and include:
- Increased appetite with weight gain (weight loss is more common with other forms of depression)
- Increased sleep (too little sleep is more common with other forms of depression)
- Less energy and ability to concentrate
- Loss of interest in work or other activities
- Sluggish movements
- Social withdrawal
- Unhappiness and irritability
What Puts You at Risk of Having Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Risk factors that may heighten your chances of having seasonal affective disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
- Being female. Seasonal affective disorder is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but men may have symptoms that are more severe.
- Living far from the equator. Seasonal affective disorder appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter, and longer days during the summer months.
- Family history. As with other types of depression, those with seasonal affective disorder may be more likely to have blood relatives with the condition.
- Having clinical depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
While no specific gene has been shown to cause SAD, many people with this illness report at least one close relative with a psychiatric condition—most frequently a severe depressive disorder or substance abuse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Scientists are studying serotonin levels, the hormone melatonin, and sleep-wake cycles (also called circadian rhythms) during the changing seasons for their roles in contributing to SAD, reports NAMI. Some studies have shown that SAD is more common in people who live in northern latitudes (e.g., Canada and Alaska as opposed to California and Florida).
SAD can sometimes become long-term depression. Bipolar disorder or thoughts of suicide are also possible.
When to See a Doctor
It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t seem to get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor, recommends the Mayo Clinic. This is particularly important if you notice that your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you feel hopeless, think about suicide, or find yourself turning to alcohol for comfort or relaxation.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder includes light therapy (use of a special lamp with a very bright light that mimics light from the sun). Since nearly half of people with SAD do not respond to light therapy alone, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, antidepressant medicines and talk therapy can reduce SAD symptoms, either alone or combined with light therapy.
Managing Your Depression at Home
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat healthy foods.
- Take medicines the right way. Ask your health care provider how to manage side effects.
- Learn to watch for early signs that your depression is getting worse. Have a plan if it does get worse.
- Try to exercise more often. Do activities that make you happy.
- Do not use alcohol and illegal drugs. These can make depression worse. They can also affect your judgment about suicide.
- When you are struggling with depression, talk about how you are feeling with someone you trust. Try to be around people who are caring and positive. Volunteer or get involved in group activities.
Download this seasonal affective disorder fact sheet courtesy of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.