The hustle and bustle of the holidays are over. We’re tucked in to the long, cold, grey days of winter. Some people look forward to the season’s sweaters, hot chocolate and quiet evenings in. For other folks, winter can trigger a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
SAD is a subtype of major depression or bipolar disorder and is related to the changes in seasons; people with SAD have symptoms of depression every year at the same time. Similar to other types of mental illnesses, SAD involves more persistent symptoms and impaired functioning, whether it be at school, at work, or at home (in relationships, for example).
For most people, symptoms begin in the fall as days get shorter and is characterized by low energy, increased sleep and increased appetite. As days get longer and sunnier in the spring, symptoms go away. In rare cases, people can have symptoms in reverse, feeling depressed during the summer months.
Symptoms of SAD can be different for everyone, but generally, they mirror common symptoms of depression, including:
- Less energy for everyday tasks
- Trouble concentrating
- Fatigue and desire to sleep more
- Increased appetite and cravings for sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Increased desire to be alone
- Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
- Feelings of guilt and worry
- Social and relationship problems
What Causes SAD?
Though we don’t know the exact cause for SAD, experts believe it’s related to hormonal changes in the brain. The reduced sunlight of fall and winter can cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects your mood. Melatonin levels can drop too, also affecting your mood and sleep.
SAD is more common in women, people who have a family history of depression and SAD and those who have depression or bipolar disorder and usually starts in young adulthood. Because it’s related to the lack of sunlight in the winter, SAD is also diagnosed more in countries that have less sunshine during winter months.
How is SAD Treated?
Treatment for SAD can vary and may include light therapy, antidepressant medications and counseling.
With light therapy, you sit a few feet from a special light box that uses bright light — about 20 times brighter than normal room lighting. The therapy mimics natural outdoor light, changing the levels of the chemicals in your brain that affect mood.
Sometimes eating better and making an effort to get outside during the day for more natural light are all it takes to feel better. But when symptoms continue and have an impact on your day-to-day life, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Like other types of depression, SAD can lead to more serious problems if it’s not treated, or symptoms could be a sign of a different medical issue.