With the winter months rolling in, a new kind of mental health condition arises. One that can leave many feeling low with energy and spirits for months to come.
Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that develops due to the changing of seasons. ¹ People who experience SAD usually due so annually during the same period of time.
For most, it starts in the fall and continues through to the winter months. However, the time frame will vary from person to person. With a select few even experiencing SAD during the summer period.
Throughout this article, we offer an overview of seasonal depression and what you can do to help with symptoms. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What Are Seasonal Depression Symptoms?
Most symptoms of SAD are similar to those of standard depression. The only major difference is these symptoms appear solely during a select period of the year – usually, during the winter months.
Symptoms of SAD may include: ²
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guiltiness
- Feelings of sadness, depression, and loneliness
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Sleeping difficulties
- Suicidal ideation
It should be noted that you’ll most likely only experience a select few of the above symptoms. No two people go through SAD in a similar manner and each case is highly personal.
If you experience SAD during the winter and fall months, you may also experience the following symptoms:
- Appetite changes (craving specific foods)
- Lack of energy (fatigue)
- Weight gain
If you experience SAD during the summer and spring months, you may also experience the following symptoms:
- Anxiety and agitation
- Insomnia (difficulty sleeping)
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
SAD can also play a major role in those who have bipolar disorder. People may experience manic episodes during the spring and summer months followed by a depressive episode in the fall and winter months.
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
Science still isn’t completely sure what causes SAD. However, many argue that changes in specific times of the year – particularly, winter – alters certain hormones made deep in the brain. In turn, this creates an attitude change through the symptoms mentioned above. ³
The most common theory for sad is the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter months causes the brain to create less serotonin. Serotonin is an important chemical for helping the brain with various functions. People who have less serotonin often struggle with symptoms of depression.
This theory holds some weight as SAD has been found to be more common in places that don’t experience as much sunshine during the fall and winter months.
In most cases, SAD begins in the early stages of youth. It’s been found to be much more common in women than men.
Everyone experiences SAD on a different level. Some will only have mild symptoms, such as bouts and irritability. While others may have stronger symptoms that could impact various aspects of life, including relationships and responsibilities.
Signs of Seasonal Depression
If you are concerned about a loved one who may be experiencing SAD, there are a few things to keep an eye out for.
Some risk factors that increase the chances of SAD include:
- Environment – People who live further from the equator tend to experience SAD more frequently than those who live closer. It’s believed this has to do with the fact that sunlight decreases during the winter months the further away you get from the equator.
- Family History – If someone else within the family (blood relatives) experiences SAD or another form of depression, a person is more susceptible to symptoms. ⁴
- Struggling with Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder – If you’re already struggling with symptoms of depression from another mental health condition, you may be more vulnerable to symptoms of SAD.
People with SAD may show the following signs that could lead to life complications:
- Difficulty managing responsibilities (i.e. school or work)
- Social withdrawal
- Struggling with other mental health conditions (such as anxiety or eating disorders)
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal ideation
Treatment for Seasonal Depression
Since SAD comes around annually, there are a number of different routes you can take in order to ease symptoms.
The first and most common is light therapy (sometimes referred to as photo-therapy). This is when you sit a few feet away from a light box for the first hour after waking up.
Light therapy is supposed to mimic natural light produced by the sun and, in turn, release serotonin into the brain. ⁵
Though research on light therapy is limited, it’s been found to have positive effects on people who struggle with SAD. Admittedly, it can take some time to really start working – anywhere from a few days to a few weeks – and it may cause some side effects.
If light therapy isn’t enough, you may want to combine it with traditional psychotherapies (sometimes referred to as talk therapies). The purpose of these therapies is to identify your cognitive behavior and help you to change negative thought patterns. ⁶
Psychotherapies are a great way to help you manage stress and cope with various symptoms of SAD.
And they work even better when you do various mind-body exercises on your own time. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Guided imagery
- Music or art therapy
- Tranquility techniques, such as yoga or tai chi
What Can You Do?
If you approach a doctor concerning SAD, they may suggest you take certain medications to help regulate your brain chemicals. It’s important to note that many of the medications they suggest are highly addictive and can further problems than you initially began with.
With that said, there are a number of alternative, more natural medications you may want to look into. These include various herbal remedies or supplements that don’t risk addiction and, in turn, are much healthier for the body. ⁷
However, to really beat SAD, it’s important to make a few lifestyle changes. The human brain is wired to adjust to habits and if you get yourself in the right habits, it’s likely your SAD symptoms will decrease.
Some healthy habits to keep in mind include:
- Create a Brighter Environment – There are a number of different ways you can place yourself in a sunnier environment. For example, keep your blinds open during the daylight hours, sit near a window while you work, add skylights to your home, or cut down a tree branch that blocks sunlight.
- Exercising – physical activity has the ability to relieve stress and anxiety while lifting your mood as it helps promote endorphins within the brain. ⁸
- Go Outside – Try to take in as much natural light as you can, even if time is limited. Even on the coldest and cloudiest day, a little bit of outdoor light can do a lot. Whether it’s taking a walk or simply sitting on a bench, getting sunlight two hours after waking up can make all the difference.
Though it’s important to receive professional help if your SAD symptoms are debilitating, it’s vital you attempt to take action into your own hands. A person is more likely to overcome SAD if they are the ones making sure symptoms don’t arise.
Still have questions concerning seasonal depression?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any professional or personal advice you’d like to console about the topic, we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ NIMH: Seasonal Affective Disorder
² Regis College: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
³ RUSH: Health & Wellness: More Than Just the Winter Blues?
⁴ HHS Public Access: Overview of the Genetics of Major Depressive Disorder
⁵ PubMed: Bright light therapy: side effects and benefits across the symptom spectrum.
⁶ HHS Public Access: Brief Psychotherapy for Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
⁷ HHS Public Access: Update and Critique of Natural Remedies as Antidepressant Treatments
⁸ HHS Public Access: Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression?