What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? And how to treat it?
The autumn shift to daylight savings time often brings an unwelcome guest: seasonal depression. If you’ve experienced a depressive episode during the fall and winter months, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a specific type of depressive symptom related to changes in the seasons. It’s most common for depressive symptoms to begin in the fall and linger into the winter months. However, the opposite pattern can exist, where someone experiences depressive symptoms in the spring and summer instead. If you have SAD, you probably notice the symptoms set in around the same time every year.
Symptoms of SAD:
- Feeling depressed most days
- Decreased interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Low energy
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in your weight or appetite
- Feeling agitated or sluggish
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling worthless, hopeless, or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death, self-harm, or suicide
Symptoms specific to fall and winter SAD:
- Appetite changing, especially craving carbohydrates
- Tiredness or low energy levels
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal or feeling like you're "hibernating.
Symptoms specific to spring and summer SAD:
- Trouble sleeping
- Low appetite, often leading to weight loss
- Agitation or anxiety
What causes SAD?
SAD’s causes aren’t fully understood, but are thought to be tied to the following factors:
- Reduced levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which helps regulate mood
- Reduced levels of sunlight disrupt your body’s internal clock
- Changes in seasons cause disruptions in your body’s melatonin levels, which regulate sleep patterns and mood
Ways to manage SAD symptoms
Phototherapy (light therapy)
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a sun lamp or a special lightbox within the first hour of waking up every day. This can improve mood by mimicking the early-morning sunlight you’d normally get in spring and summer.
Light therapy is one of the easiest, most affordable, and least invasive treatments for SAD. Talk to your doctor before starting light therapy; they might be able to recommend a lightbox that will be safe and effective.
Antidepressants can help with SAD, especially if your symptoms are severe. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about writing you a prescription. If your symptoms come back at a consistent time each year, they might even recommend starting the antidepressant before your symptoms typically start.
Keep in mind that it can take several weeks to notice the full benefits of an antidepressant. You may also have to try a few different medications before finding the right one for you. Think of it as a collaborative process with your doctor or psychiatrist.
To treat SAD, therapists often use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT can help you:
- Identify and challenge negative thoughts and patterns that might be making you feel worse
- Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD
- Learn how to manage stress more effectively
Many people find relief from SAD through more unconventional methods, such as:
- Relaxation techniques like tai chi or yoga
- Regular exercise, especially cardio
- Mindfulness techniques
- Music or art therapy