What Exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder, commonly referred to as SAD, winter depression, or seasonal depression, is a variation of depression. It falls under the category of Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Individuals with SAD encounter mood changes and symptoms like depression. These symptoms typically manifest during the autumn and winter months when sunlight is limited, but they often improve as spring arrives. In the United States, January and February tend to be the most challenging months for individuals with SAD. While less common, some people experience SAD in the summer.
SAD goes beyond mere “winter blues.” Its symptoms can be distressing and overwhelming, significantly interfering with daily functioning. However, effective treatments exist. Approximately 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD, which persists for around 40 percent of the year. It is more prevalent among women than men.
SAD has been associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain triggered by shorter daylight hours and reduced sunlight during winter. As the seasons change, individuals undergo a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm, causing a misalignment with their regular schedule. SAD is more prevalent in people residing far from the equator, where winter daylight hours are limited.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Common symptoms of SAD include fatigue, even after excessive sleep, and weight gain due to overeating and cravings for carbohydrates. The severity of SAD symptoms can vary, ranging from mild to severe, and shares several similarities with major depression. These symptoms include:
– Feeling sad or experiencing a depressed mood
– Loss of interest or pleasure in once-enjoyed activities
– Changes in appetite, usually an increase with cravings for carbohydrates
– Alterations in sleep patterns, often characterized by excessive sleep
– Loss of energy or increased fatigue, despite extended hours of sleep
– Increase in purposeless physical activity or slowed movements and speech, noticeable to others
– Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
– Difficulty with thinking, concentration, or decision-making
– Thoughts of death or suicide
While SAD can onset at any age, it typically begins between 18 and 30 years old.
SAD can be effectively addressed through various approaches, including light therapy, antidepressant medications, talk therapy, or a combination of these methods. While symptoms tend to improve naturally with seasonal changes, treatment can expedite the recovery process.
Light therapy involves exposure to a light therapy box that emits bright light while filtering out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Typically, individuals spend at least 20 minutes per day in front of the light box, preferably in the morning, throughout the winter months. Most people observe improvements within one to two weeks of starting light therapy. To sustain the benefits and prevent relapse, treatment is generally continued throughout the winter. In anticipation of symptom recurrence in late fall, some individuals may begin light therapy in early autumn as a preventive measure.
Talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), has shown effectiveness in treating SAD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most prescribed antidepressants for SAD.
Increased exposure to sunlight can be beneficial for certain individuals, such as spending time outdoors or arranging environments to maximize daylight exposure at home or work. However, it is important to note that excessive exposure to UV light from the sun can heighten the risk of skin cancer. It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional to weigh the risks and benefits. Additionally, maintaining general health and well-being through regular exercise, a nutritious diet, sufficient sleep, and engaging in social activities with friends and family can contribute to symptom alleviation.
If you suspect you have symptoms of SAD, seek assistance from a trained medical professional. It is crucial to rule out other potential medical conditions that may be causing the symptoms, as SAD can be misdiagnosed in the presence of hypothyroidism, hypoglycaemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections. A mental health professional can provide a proper diagnosis and discuss appropriate therapy options. With the right treatment, SAD can be effectively managed.
Online therapy, also known as teletherapy or teleconsulting, has emerged as a convenient and accessible alternative to traditional in-person therapy. It allows individuals to receive therapy sessions from the comfort of their own homes, using video calls or messaging platforms. Online therapy offers several benefits, including greater flexibility in scheduling appointments, eliminating geographical barriers, and providing a sense of privacy and anonymity. It has proven to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health concerns, allowing individuals to receive professional support and guidance regardless of their location. The convenience and accessibility of online therapy have made it a popular choice for many people seeking mental health support in today’s digital age.
In conclusion, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects individuals during specific seasons, particularly the fall and winter months. It is more than just a case of the “winter blues,” as it can cause distressing symptoms that interfere with daily life. However, SAD is a treatable condition, and various therapeutic approaches, such as light therapy, medications, and talk therapy, can help individuals manage their symptoms effectively. Additionally, the emergence of online therapy has provided a convenient and accessible option for individuals seeking mental health support, allowing them to receive therapy from the comfort of their own homes. With the right treatment and support, individuals with SAD can find relief and improve their overall well-being. If you suspect you may be experiencing SAD or any other mental health concerns, reaching out to a trained professional is essential to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care. Remember, you don’t have to face it alone – help is available.