For some of us, the winter doldrums can be far worse than just feeling a bit unmotivated and gloomy. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) impacts about 5% of the U.S. population — primarily women.
As the colder months draw closer, it’s increasingly important to manage SAD. Unsure of where to start? Let’s begin by defining some concepts.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
SAD is a type of depression that often occurs during the winter season. The DSM-5 defines SAD as “Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.” The seasonal pattern refers to developing symptoms as the days become shorter in winter. Symptoms may emerge in late fall, and then escalate during wintertime before subsiding in early spring.
While SAD affects women four times more than of men, men who do struggle with the disorder tend to get more severe symptoms. SAD is more prevalent in regions further from the equator — in the U.S., for example, the northernmost states and Alaska tend to have a 10% prevalence rate of this disorder.
Symptoms of SAD
Since SAD is a depressive disorder, the symptoms align to those of major depressive disorder. Symptoms of SAD may include:
- Decreased activity level
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Emotional hypersensitivity
- Social withdrawal
- Thoughts of suicide
What causes SAD?
While the exact cause remains a mystery, SAD is said to be triggered by reduced sunlight, which impacts brain chemicals and leads to the depressive symptoms. Other factors that have been associated with the disorder are:
- Reduced sunlight exposure: With shorter days and weather conditions that keep people indoors, SAD can develop from sunlight deprivation.
- Increased melatonin levels: Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain at higher levels when it is dark, which can induce sleep. With shorter days, the increased melatonin can cause SAD symptoms.
- Vitamin D deficiency: Sunlight provides a natural source of vitamin D. A lack of sunlight can cause vitamin D deficiency, impacting serotonin levels.
5 ways to manage seasonal depression
Consider these tips to help you manage SAD this winter:
- Light therapy: A lack of light or sun exposure can be a huge contributing factor of SAD, so light therapy can be a great way to combat it. If you have struggled with SAD in the past, start light therapy sooner rather than later. Light therapy involves the use of a “light box,” which mimics natural sunlight, for one to four hours per day.
- Psychotherapy: A traumatic life event, such as the loss of a loved one or any other serious or disturbing life event, may have sparked SAD. Psychotherapy can provide you with an outlet to discuss the emotional pain associated with the event.
- Antidepressant drug therapy: The usual first line of treatment for a depressive disorder typically involves antidepressant drug therapy. Antidepressants work by rebalancing neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
- Vitamin D supplements: Vitamin D deficiency has been found to be common in individuals with SAD. Your doctor may recommend taking a daily vitamin D supplement to help reduce the symptoms of SAD.
- Exercise: Getting regular exercise is helpful in battling SAD, as physical activity can boost your mood. To benefit from both exercise and sun exposure, get outside during daylight hours for a brisk 20-minute walk, bike ride or hike each day.
By being proactive in seeking mental health guidance for SAD symptoms, you can successfully manage this condition and enjoy the winter season.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call 866-313-6307.