Are You at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder? Know its Symptoms and What it’s All About
What is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD? Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression characterized by differences in outdoor seasonal activity. Most people with this disorder tend to show symptoms of normal depression only in the autumn and winter seasons, and are perfectly fine during spring and summer. And there are others who face the opposite depressive symptoms: happy during fall and winter, and depressed during spring and summer. Do you think you might have seasonal affective disorder or do you know someone who does? Read more about SAD and its symptoms to find out more!
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is based on changes in seasons. People with SAD tend to show depressive symptoms at about the same times every year. Most individuals with SAD will show feelings of moodiness and less energy starting in the fall and continuing into the winter months of every year. However, there are others who show the same symptoms in opposing seasons, meaning that they are fine when fall and winter come in, but become depressed during spring and summer. In a given year, about 5% of the United States population experiences SAD. Treatment for SAD usually involves light therapy, psychotherapy, and possibly medications for depression.
The Neuroscience Behind Seasonal Affective Disorder
Doctors and specialists today still do not know the exact causes behind seasonal affective disorder. However, some of the factors that they reason come into play include:
- Your Circadian Rhythm – your circadian rhythm is your biological clock that subconsciously regulates when you feel awake and when you feel sleepy based on your normal, daily routines. If your circadian rhythm is off-set or experiences challenges in functioning normally, this may lead to drastic consequences. Problems with your circadian rhythm can occur due to the reduced levels of sunlight in fall and winter because your body bases its state of wakefulness on the amount of sunlight it is receiving. Also, if you live in countries like the United States, where Daylight Savings occurs and the winter days are extremely short (less than 12 hours) than this can affect your circadian rhythm as well.
- Serotonin levels – serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects your mood. If there is even a slight decrease in the amount of serotonin being released from your parts of the brain, this could play a role in SAD. Reduced serotonin levels is linked to low exposure of sunlight, so this may trigger depressive symptoms.
- Melatonin levels – melatonin is a hormone released into your body when it is dark and at night time that causes you to feel tired and sleepy. Since changes in season, mainly during the winter, involve more exposure to darkness, more melatonin is released, which can play a role in increased sleeping patterns and depressive feelings.
- Low Vitamin D – Vitamin D has been correlated with serotonin activity. If vitamin D levels are low, this can be associated with clinical depression symptoms
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of what psychologists call “major depression” that comes and goes based on seasons. Many of the symptoms of major depression occur during specific seasons for people with SAD, and these include but are not limited to:
- Feeling depressed all day, everyday
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Having low energy/Tiredness
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Problems with sleeping
- Losing interest in activities which you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in your appetite and weight
- Problems getting along with other people
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Feeling sluggish or agitated/anxious
Keep in mind that it is normal to have days when you feel down and “in the dumps”. Seasonal affective disorder occurs when you feel depressed continuously for a long period of time and you cannot get motivated to do activities that you once enjoyed. If this becomes the case, and you qualify for most of the symptoms of SAD, it is recommended that you see your doctor. It is very important to do so especially if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed or if you feel hopeless, start thinking about suicide more often, or turn to alcohol and other intoxicants for comfort.
Risk Factors Involved with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some of the factors that could possibly increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Age – younger people have a higher risk of winter SAD; winter SAD is less likely to occur in older people
- Family history – Usually individuals with SAD are more likely to have blood relatives who also suffered from SAD or other forms of depression
- Gender – SAD has more often been diagnosed in women than in men, but men do show more severe symptoms when afflicted. Statistics show that four out of five people who have SAD are women
- Previously diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder – if you have faced one of these conditions, symptoms of depression may become worse as seasons change
- Living far away from the equator – Cases of SAD are correlated with individuals who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to the dramatic changes in sunlight and weather that take place from season to season, along with the longer days during the summer months.
Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Some of the treatments for seasonal affective disorder include:
- Phototherapy/Bright-Light Therapy – studies have shown that bright-light therapy can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85% of diagnosed cases. Patients remain in light up to ten times the intensity of normal house lighting and will do so up to four hours a day. At the same time, patients can carry on with normal activities, such as eating or reading while under treatment.
- Antidepressant Drugs – these may prove effective in reducing or eliminating symptoms, but could possibly warrant unwanted side effects. If considering antidepressant drugs, it is important to speak with a doctor or mental health professional before usage
- Psychotherapy – this form of therapy involves talking about all your feelings and releasing your problems in a healthy way to a psychotherapist. Psychotherapy can be an invaluable option for people afflicted with SAD because patients are given the opportunity to identify patterns of negative thinking and behaviors that have impacted their depression. They can also learn positive ways of coping with symptoms and try relaxation techniques that can restore lost energy.
Also, in addition to seeking help from a professional, some lifestyle changes that you can try to reduce your symptoms of SAD include:
- Going outside more often
- Getting plenty of sunlight
- Maintaining a balanced and healthy diet
- Joining a gym/team sport
- Setting productive goals for yourself to accomplish at the start of each day
- Avoiding drugs and alcohol
- Getting plenty of sleep (at least 7-8 hours)
- Practicing relaxation exercises
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Although these techniques may work, if you are experiencing many of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, it is always best to seek help and treatment for it. Consider how you can stay strong with managing seasonal affective disorder today so that you can live a healthy life in every season of the year.
Radiyyah is an undergraduate student at Macaulay Honors College and Queens College. She is currently pursuing a double Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Neuroscience with a minor in Sociology. Radiyyah is passionate about all fields relating to the brain and social psychology and she hopes to continue her career in Neuropsychology research.