Although it seems like autumn has taken so long to arrive in many parts of the world, the weather is getting cooler, the sun is out for a shorter amount of time, and many people start to notice a change in their mood with the changing weather. There is a difference between just feeling a little down when it’s rainy or cloudy or having a form of depression that occurs during the winter months. The latter is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.” These depressive episodes can also occur in the summer, although it is not as common as the episodes occurring during the winter months.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists risk factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder which include the following:
- Being female: SAD is diagnosed 4 times more often in females than males.
- Living far from the equator: SAD is more frequent in people who live far north or south of the equator. It is estimated that 9% of people living in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD.
- Family history: People with a family history of other types of depression are more likely to develop SAD than people who do not have a family history of depression.
- Having depression or bipolar disorder: The symptoms of depression may worsen with the seasons for people with major depression or bipolar disorder. However, SAD is diagnosed only if seasonal depression is the most prevalent.
- Younger Age: Younger adults have a higher risk of SAD than older adults, and SAD can even be seen in children and adolescents.
To be diagnosed with SAD, the full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons (appearing in the winter or summer months) must be met for at least 2 years. Seasonal depression is more frequent than non-seasonal depression. The symptoms of the Winter Pattern of SAD include:
- Having low energy
- Sleeping too much
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
Symptoms of the less frequently occurring summer seasonal affective disorder include:
- Poor appetite with associated weight loss
- Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep)
- Episodes of violent behavior
In addition, the symptoms of major depression include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleep
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
(National Institute of Mental Health, 2016)
If you have any of these symptoms and feel this may be relevant to you, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to seek care from a trained mental health professional. According to the American Psychiatric Association, possible treatment for SAD includes many different types of therapy, including light therapy through exposure to direct sunlight or a light box, antidepressant medication such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), and/or a type of talk therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Light therapy works by affecting brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, which help to alleviate the SAD symptoms (Mayo Clinic, 2017).
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