What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) describes depression and mood changes that happen only during the winter months. There's less sunlight and colder temperatures that may keep you from more physical activity. SAD is worse than simply the blues. It can interfere with your everyday life. About 2% of the U.S. population lives with this seasonal condition.

Causes of SAD

Doctors don't yet know the exact causes of SAD. It may be related to issues with your biological clock and the internal cycle that makes you tired or wakeful. Not getting as much sunlight may also disrupt your hormones. This can influence your moods and sleep patterns.

Risk factors for SAD

Most people start to notice they have this condition between the ages of 20 and 30. Four out of five people with SAD are women. Other risk factors include:

  • History of depression or bipolar disorder
  • Living farther away from the equator
  • Family history of SAD

Symptoms of SAD

SAD can sometimes appear during the summer months. Usually, symptoms begin during late fall and early winter. If you have SAD, you may feel depressed during most of the day, almost every day. You might lose interest in the things that once made you happy. You may have low energy, too.

Other symptoms include:

  • Changes in appetite or weight, either increasing or decreasing
  • Poor sleep patterns, either not enough or oversleeping
  • Inability to concentrate on tasks
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Feeling hopeless

Diagnosis of SAD

It's completely normal to have a day or two when you're feeling blue. But if you're feeling low for more than a few days without a very clear reason, make an appointment to see your doctor. It's especially important to talk to your doctor if you:

  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Find yourself withdrawing socially
  • Experience problems at work or in school
  • Try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol

Your doctor can do a physical exam to make sure that other medical conditions aren't responsible for your symptoms. They'll want to know how you're feeling and if you've experienced symptoms before. They may ask about your lifestyle and what changes you've noticed in yourself. Once you get a diagnosis, your doctor can talk with you about treatment options.

Treatments for SAD

SAD often resolves itself at the end of the season. There are treatments available that can help you live fully and productively during the season that impacts you.

Light therapy involves using a light therapy box. This machine emits a bright light that mimics the sun, but without the harmful UV rays. Sitting in front of the machine for 20 minutes, especially at the beginning of the day, can help your symptoms after one or two weeks.

Talk therapy is also an effective method for treating SAD. Weekly or biweekly meetings with a mental health counselor can help you develop life skills and coping methods. You can use these skills during and even before you have SAD symptoms.

Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressant medications. The doctor may want you to take them only during the months with reduced sunlight.

Even though you may not want to, getting outside for a few hours every day can also help. Maintain a regular exercise habit. Follow a nutritious diet. Stay involved in your community by volunteering or socializing with friends to help the treatment process.

Recovery from SAD

You'll likely feel better once the weather warms up. If you know that you have this condition, it can help to start your annual treatment procedure before the days get shorter. The more proactive you are, the quicker might recover. Plus, it can be easier to manage your symptoms, too. If possible, try planning a vacation to a warmer climate during the winter. This can give you a boost of positivity and help you deal with SAD.