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Written by: Hannah LeClerc, Medical Psychology Center Intern, Salem State University
Have you ever wondered why you or others around you feel sad and tired during the winter months? Have you noticed you feel happier in the spring and summer when the weather is warm and the sun is shining? Do these feelings come and go yearly with the changing of seasons? You may be experiencing SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that can occur due to the change of yearly seasons. It is a type of depressive mood disorder that has many of the same symptoms of a classic depressive disorder. Generally, the onset begins in the fall or the winter and last until spring or summer season (when there is more sunshine). A rare form of seasonal depression is “summer” depression, which begins in the spring or summer and lasts until fall or winter. Symptoms of winter SAD include, but are not limited to:
What are the causes?
The specific causes of SAD are unknown. However, there are several biological and chemical indicators that may offer an explanation. People with SAD may have trouble producing or maintaining adequate serotonin levels in the brain, which is known as the “happiness” neurotransmitter. People diagnosed with SAD may also produce too much melatonin, which is the neurotransmitter associated with sleep and your circadian cycle. Lastly, and probably the most obvious is that people with serotonin lack an adequate amount of vitamin D, which plays a role in serotonin production.
Who does it affect?
SAD can affect anyone, of any age. For example, many individuals in the Northeastern United States experience winter SAD because of the lack of sunlight and vitamin D. The farther north or south you live from the equator (the sunniest place on earth year round), the higher your chances of developing SAD. Women are also 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men. If you have a family history of depression, or have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, this also increases your chances of developing SAD. 5% of adults in the U.S experience SAD. Their symptoms generally persist for about 40% of the calendar year. The most difficult months for SAD prove to be January and February; in the dead of winter.
How do you treat SAD?
Just like any mood disorder, SAD can be treated in multiple ways. These treatments involve light therapy, medication, psychotherapy and intake of vitamin D. SSRI’s, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, help stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain. Light therapy through the use of light boxes is a very common treatment for SAD. This involves exposure to cool fluorescent lighting for 20 minutes to an hour by sitting in front of a light box from the fall until early spring. People typically do this first thing in the morning before they start their day. According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder associate (SADA), light therapy is effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases of SAD. Traditional psychotherapy can help combat the negative self thoughts and help with mood regulation that is disrupted by SAD. Promotion of engaging in indoor and outdoor activities during the winter is a common piece of psychotherapy as a treatment for SAD. Lastly, the addition of a vitamin D supplement to one’s routine may help improve serotonin production and improve mood and energy levels. Vitamin D supplements can be purchased at your local drug store or pharmacy. Any of these treatments alone or in combination can be used to combat SAD. Going on vacation, spending time outdoors, maintaining a healthy diet and maintaining a set sleep schedule are also alternative options in treating SAD. It is important to consult a doctor for a diagnosis, and to make sure your symptoms are not related to a possible medical condition.
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Winch, G., Ph.D. (2015, October 26). 10 Signs of Seasonal Depression (and 6 Ways to Fight It). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201510/10-signs-seasonal-depression-and-6-ways-fight-it