6 Things You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder
Your winter blues might be more than a cold-weather bad mood.
We blame winter for the patches of dry, flaky skin on our faces and hundreds of canceled flights, but the chilly season might also be the source of the metaphorical gloomy cloud that’s been hanging over your head since you changed your clocks.
Although the "winter blues” sound harmless, they aren't something to take lightly. Appropriately abbreviated SAD, seasonal affective disorder is a psychological condition that tends to occur in the winter months and is theorized to be linked to a decreased exposure to light during winter, according to Marc J. Romano, PsyD, director of medical services at Delphi Behavioral Health.
Though it has overlap with Major Depressive Disorder, SAD — which has more recently been referred to as major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern — has a distinct seasonal component. "Individuals with SAD tend to experience an increase in depressive symptoms in early fall or winter, and these symptoms begin to subside in early spring or early summer with full remission," says Dr. Romano.
So in short, you might start to feel down in the dumps during the cold months, but your mood might also tend to lift back up come, say, late March or early April. "In contrast, those with a Major Depressive Disorder may experience symptoms of depression at any time of the year," he continues.
Common SAD symptoms you might experience: Sadness, decreased activity, increased sleep, weight gain, irritability, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, increased anxiety, withdrawal from family and friends, feelings of worthlessness, and/or recurrent thoughts of death.
But in addition to a proper diagnosis and treatment, experts say there are measures you can take to better understand seasonal affective disorder. Here, a few things you might notice if you have SAD, as well as steps you can take to help curb the symptoms that come along with the condition.
1. SAD is different than just hating winter.
If you see the first snow and your first thought is “ugh,” then it might just mean you aren’t keen on the winter months, not that you are experiencing true seasonal affective disorder.
“SAD is much more than just disliking the winter months,” says Christina Iglesia, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and founder of the mental health action campaign #therapyiscool. “The symptoms associated with SAD can be debilitating and interfere with daily functioning.”
So, yeah, simply wishing you were wearing shorts, loathing painful, chapped skin, and feeling a bit of cabin fever doesn’t mean you are dealing with SAD.
2. Mental health conditions can increase your likelihood of experiencing SAD.
If you are already living with a mental health condition, such as depression or bipolar disorder, then Dr. Iglesia says you may be more impacted by seasonal depressive episodes.
Other factors that might affect your risk of SAD include having a close relative with a mental illness, depressive disorder, or alcohol use disorder, according to Dr. Romano. Regionally, it's more common in the northern regions of the U.S. compared to southern states. And while there's no set age range, Dr. Romano says it usually pops up between the ages of 18 and 30.
3. Women are at higher risk.
If more of your female friends claim to suffer from SAD than any of the men in your life, that isn't necessarily a coincidence. Dr. Romano says that women are four times more likely to deal with the disorder.
Why women are at higher risk or SAD isn’t exactly known. Some research shows that it might have to do with fluctuating hormones — specifically, estrogen — which can also have an effect on serotonin levels, your brain’s feel-good chemical.
4. Preparing for it might help.
While SAD is inevitable for some people, prepping for what’s to come might help you better mitigate some symptoms, says Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in California. Stay on top of SAD by scheduling appointments in advance with your healthcare provider or therapist (or both) and plan for activities that might help you navigate the season a bit better, like joining a book or movie club with friends.
Of course, you can only prepare for SAD if you’ve already been diagnosed with the condition and expect it to occur at the same time, every year. SAD can occur at any time and is diagnosed when there had been a pattern of symptoms for at least two years in a row.
5. SAD can occur in the summer, too.
It’s true that many people do experience SAD in the winter, but for some people, summer weather can trigger the condition. While summer seasonal affective disorder affects less than one-tenth of SAD cases, it is a thing, Dr. Irwin says.
“Some people have negative associations to warm months, like body image concerns, hating the heat or feeling like sunlight is too bright,” she says. Some research suggests that summer SAD might also be the result of people staying up later due to more hours of light in the warmer months, therefore messing with their circadian rhythms and throwing their system for a loop.
Regardless of the cause, the root characteristic is the same: Summer SAD occurs every year, at the same time (just like winter SAD).
6. You will need treatment.
Like any mental health condition, medication is on the table for treating seasonal affective disorder, but you’ll want to have a plan in place with your healthcare provider.
"It is recommended that individuals begin taking the medication prior to the start of fall to ensure that the medication is in the person’s system before symptoms of SAD appear,” notes Dr. Romano.
One of the most common treatments for SAD is light therapy, which simulates sunlight and increases the "happy chemical" (aka serotonin) in the brain, according to Dr. Irwin. And it requires more than just the average flick of the switch: Light therapy lamps emit light that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). Experts recommend sitting in front of a seasonal affective disorder lamp for 20 to 60 minutes per day.
You might also try psychotherapy which, along with antidepressant medication, is considered the “gold standard treatment” for major depressive disorder and has been found to be effective for other forms of depression such as SAD, according to Dr. Iglesia.
No matter the treatment you choose, it’s important to find help for SAD. Like other mental health conditions, if not treated properly, SAD can manifest in physical symptoms, including body aches, gastrointestinal issues, and hypertension, so if you think you might have seasonal affective disorder, it's vital to speak with a licensed psychologist or a medical professional.