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Most people with seasonal depression experience symptoms during the darker and cooler months from late fall to early spring.
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of depression, get help as soon as possible. Call your primary care physician for a depression screening or make an appointment with a mental health care specialist in your area. Seasonal depression is an illness that won’t go away without the right kind of help.
The following article will share information about seasonal depression, but it’s not intended as a professional medical diagnosis or treatment.
What is SAD?
Seasonal depression, which is also known as seasonal affective disorder, SAD, is a type of depression that’s triggered by the changing seasons.
Some people with seasonal depression have symptoms during the summer, but most people experience symptoms from late fall to early spring, when it’s cooler and darker outside.
But SAD is not simply a case of the winter blues that you can shake off by going for a walk or calling a friend.
For people with SAD, depression affects how they spend their time, how they perceive their surroundings, and how they interact with others.
Left untreated, SAD can get worse. Symptoms of depression can overwhelm patients with feelings of hopelessness, malaise, and even suicidal thoughts.
Symptoms of SAD
The symptoms of SAD are the same symptoms people experience when they have other forms of depression.
These symptoms include:
- Feeling sad day after day
- Neglecting activities that are usually enjoyable
- Feeling low-energy, lethargic
- Unusual sleep patterns
- Gaining weight
- Losing focus
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
Not everyone who has SAD experiences all of these symptoms, and the symptoms can change throughout the season. Experiencing symptoms consistently for two weeks or more can mean you need to seek help from a mental health care provider.
Causes of Seasonal Depression
Like other forms of depression, seasonal depression has no single, known cause. But according to The Cleveland Clinic, there are some potential causes:
- Disrupted circadian rhythms: We all have a rhythm to our daily activities. Seasonal changes in light and weather tend to disrupt our circadian rhythms, and this change could cause depression in some people.
- Melatonin changes: Melatonin is a hormone that helps control sleep patterns. Seasonal changes can affect melatonin levels, leading to changes in sleep patterns that could cause depression for some people.
- Serotonin changes: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects moods. Seasonal changes can affect serotonin changes, and this could cause some people to experience the symptoms of depression.
It’s also possible for two or three of these causes to overlap, creating a more multifaceted cause for seasonal depression.
Risk Factors for SAD
While we don’t know the exact cause of seasonal depression, we do know when people face a higher risk of developing this mental health condition. The following risk factors are common in people who have a diagnosis of seasonal depression:
- Geography: Seasonal depression is diagnosed more often in places where it’s coldest and darkest during the winter — the places on the globe that are farthest from the equator.
- Vitamin D deficiency: Sunlight helps our bodies produce Vitamin D which can increase serotonin, positively affecting our moods. For someone who’s already Vitamin D deficient, the cooler and darker months can have a bigger impact negatively.
- Family history: There’s no direct gene responsible for seasonal depression, but research and clinical experience shows that the condition tends to occur within families. Someone with a close relative who struggles with seasonal depression is more likely to develop the condition.
- Another depression diagnosis: Someone who already has been diagnosed with another form of depression or bipolar disorder, is more likely to develop seasonal depression.
These risk factors don’t cause SAD, but they are connected to the condition. If you’ve experienced the symptoms of depression for two weeks or more — and if you also have one or more of these risk factors — it’s even more important to seek treatment as soon as possible.
How to Fight Seasonal Depression
There’s no way to “snap out of” seasonal depression on your own. Only treatment from a health care provider can help alleviate or eliminate the symptoms in people who have this condition.
However, a healthy lifestyle can help people who are at risk fight seasonal depression:
- Getting outside: Even when it’s cold and cloudy, there’s more sunlight outside than inside. When possible, spend some time outdoors every day.
- Eating well: A healthy diet with a variety of minerals and vitamins can help maintain energy levels. Eat real foods instead of processed foods when possible, and avoid sugar- and starch-heavy foods.
- Staying socially active: We’re social creatures. Interacting with friends and favorite family members can help.
- Exercising: Exercise helps encourage proper brain chemistry. If you’re stuck indoors — and you’re healthy enough to be active — try some jumping jacks or jogging in place.
These kinds of self-care could help lessen the symptoms of seasonal depression.
Treatment for Seasonal Depression
People who seek help for seasonal depression, and other types of depression, almost always respond well to treatment. Here are the common types of treatment for people who have been diagnosed. A lot of patients receive a combination of the following treatments:
Light therapy has grown a lot more common over the past two decades as clinicians have learned more and more about SAD. Light therapy is also one of the easiest forms of treatment to administer.
The patient sits in front of a bright light every day, usually for less than an hour a day, and usually first thing in the morning.
Not just any light will do. The light is about 20 times brighter than normal indoor light levels. Specialized “light boxes” filter out dangerous ultraviolet light. Light therapy must also be set up correctly for people with sensitive eyes or eye conditions.
It’s been proven that talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, can help patients with SAD, according to the NIMH. While the relief may not happen as quickly as with light therapy, the results can be longer lasting as talk therapy gives you the tools to help manage the difficult feeling associated with SAD.
Talk therapy is centered around conversations with a professional mental health provider. Often, with SAD, the therapy can take place in groups. Discussions center on how to deal with seasonal depression symptoms and how to replace negative thoughts during the winter season.
Like other forms of depression, SAD affects brain chemistry. Medication can help restore the proper chemical balance, helping patients combat seasonal depression. Many prescribed medications for seasonal depression help control the release and reception of serotonin in the brain.
Medication can be very effective, but it can also take time to find the right dose and the right type of medicine. Be sure to communicate with your provider if you’re concerned about the side effects of any medication.
Vitamin D Supplements
Often, people who have seasonal depression are Vitamin D deficient year-round. Then, fewer hours of sunlight during the winter depletes Vitamin D levels even more, affecting serotonin and mood. It’s a natural assumption that supplementing Vitamin D should help.
Unfortunately, this treatment isn’t as effective as common sense might indicate. Some patients respond to the treatment, but others report no positive effects, according to the NIMH.
Where to Find Help for Seasonal Depression
Relief from seasonal depression is easy to find online or in person. Taking the first step is often the hardest part about seeking treatment for any kind of depression.
Try to remember that you’re not alone. In the U.S., 1 in 5 people experience mental illness each year, and half of all Americans will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetimes.
The staff at Mental Health Associates of the Triad treats patients like individuals. Every mental illness is unique, and every person’s challenges are unique, so every treatment plan should also be unique.
We’re here for immediate assistance, and we’ll be here for ongoing counseling and support.
Reviewed by Karen Rudd, LMFT, LCAS