As the last days of autumn make way for wintertime, a familiar undesired guest might soon show up at the doorstep. Seasonal affective disorder, appropriately referred to as SAD, is a type of depression that presents during the winter season. More intense than the typical winter blahs, seasonal depression threatens to impair daily functioning and quality of life.
SAD impacts about 5% of the U.S. population, with the majority of those afflicted being women. In certain geographical regions, those furthest from the equator, SAD can affect about 10% of the population. The relationship between seasonal depression and region involves the shorter days and limited access to sunshine during the winter months.
A lack of sun exposure can result in a vitamin D deficiency, something that is a known factor in depression. A meta-analysis conducted in Canada found significant improvement in women with depression who were treated with vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D supplementation is one of several interventions that help those who suffer from seasonal depression.
What is Depression?
Depression is the second most common mental health depression affecting U.S. adults, with 17.3 million experiencing a depressive disorder each year. Symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad most of the day, nearly every day
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Sleep disturbances, such as hypersomnia or insomnia
- Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or shame
- Changes in appetite that result in sudden weight changes
- Slowed movements and cognitive processes
- Thoughts of suicide or death
When five or more of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it is diagnosed as major depressive disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
Seasonal depression, or SAD, is a type of depression. In addition to the above symptoms of major depressive disorder, there are 5 signs of seasonal depression symptoms specifically:
- Excessive sleeping
- Irritability and hypersensitivity
- Craving carbohydrates and sugary foods and weight gain
- Extreme fatigue
- Social withdrawal or isolating behaviors
Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment
Fortunately, there are effective treatment measures that can help someone with seasonal depression find relief. These interventions include:
Antidepressants. Treatment for a depressive disorder tends to begin with antidepressant drug therapy. Antidepressants work by rebalancing neurotransmitters, specifically dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals are associated with mood and emotions, concentration, memory and energy levels. Wellbutrin XL, Paxil, or Prozac are typically prescribed for SAD. These medications take about 4 weeks to start relieving symptoms.
Psychotherapy. SAD symptoms may be provoked by a negative life event. As we are all aware, 2020 has offered a huge helping of negative effects. Whether it was losing a loved one to COVID-19 or other causes, relationship struggles, a job loss, moving, or any disruptive life event, the pandemic has been hard on us all. Psychotherapy provides an outlet for discussing the emotional pain associated with any negative life events, and helps to guide the person through the healing process.
Light therapy. Because a lack of sun exposure lies at the heart of SAD, light therapy, or phototherapy, is a first line of defense. If you already know you suffer from seasonal depression, start the light therapy now. Light therapy involves the use of a “light box” for 1.5-4 hours per day, which mimics natural light. The extra light exposure tricks the body into adjusting neurotransmitter production. The light box can be used while going about your usual routine at home, such as working, reading, dining, or watching TV.
Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is a common feature in people with seasonal depression. A vitamin D dose of 1000 IU each day is the usual recommendation for individuals with SAD. A positive this year about vitamin D levels is that many people are already taking the supplements to help boost immunity against COVID-19.
Regular exercise. Exercise is already known to be a mood booster. Physical activity provides multiple benefits for individuals with seasonal depression, such as improving mood, sleep quality, energy levels, and cognitive functioning. To benefit from both the exercise and the sunlight exposure, try to time your daily exercise during daylight hours. Consider a brisk 20-minute walk, bike ride, or hike each day for optimum wellness during the winter months.
If you begin to notice the signs of SAD this winter, do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health provider for guidance. This is especially important for those in substance use recovery, as depression is a risk factor for relapse. By employing these interventions you will get through the winter months unscathed and can then look forward to welcoming the springtime.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs, holistic addiction treatment, drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to heal each individual with respect and dignity, and reflects on our ongoing commitment to meet new challenges. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.