What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time of year annually. The most common is the winter depression that starts in the fall and goes through to early spring.  SAD has only been recognized since 1985 and tends to occur more frequently the further away from the equator people live. People actually diagnosed with SAD is around 5%, but upwards of 20% of people can have some symptoms of SAD. It occurs four times more often in women than men and the average age of onset seems to be around 23 years old. Symptoms can start out mild at the beginning of the season and worsen as the season goes on.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

A thorough mental health diagnostic evaluation should be sought if you notice the same symptoms come and go away each year in a cyclical pattern for the past two years. 1) depressed (sad or empty) mood most of the day, 2) hopelessness, 3) weight gain, 4) oversleeping, 5) lowered energy level/fatigue, 6) anxiety, 7) social isolation, 8) indecisiveness or lack of concentration, 9) loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities, 10) increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates.

Causes of seasonal affective disorder remain unknown however some factors have been implicated. Serotonin levels are known to affect depression and it is believed that reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin. Melatonin levels can also be affected by seasonal changes and have been shown to play a role in mood and sleep patterns. Circadian rhythms are your natural body clock and the changes in sunlight could affect your circadian rhythms and result in depression. Risk factors for SAD include being female, living far from the equator (bad news for Minnesotans), having low levels of vitamin D, and having a family history of seasonal affective depression.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Generally, seasonal affective disorder is treated with anti-depressant medication, psychotherapy, or light therapy (photolight). The best course of treatment for each person is something that should be discussed with your physician or mental health therapist. Anti-depressant medications are designed to target neurotransmitters such as serotonin (SSRIs). Although SAD is more of a chemical imbalance, psychotherapy can help focus on negative thoughts and distortions. Light therapy is a specialized box that emits light that is about 25X brighter than normal lights used in a home. It’s recommended people use the light for 30 minutes a day. It seems the quantity, not the quality (lesser than actual sunlight), of light, is what’s important. Light therapy seems to have no identified negative side effects.

To discuss seasonal depression with a provider, make an appointment today to meet with one of our therapists.

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