Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is referred to as a kind of depression triggered due to season changes — it begins and ends approximately at the same time every year.
If you're experiencing SAD, you may notice symptoms starting in the fall and may continue throughout the winter months. The obvious impact of Sad accounts for draining your energy and leading to extreme mood swings.
There are various treatments and medications available to treat the specific symptoms related to SAD. During the spring and summer, these signs generally go away.
SAD is not specific to winters and can also cause depression in early summer. Such symptoms go away during the fall or winter months.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during usually winter (in a few cases, it can be summer). SAD may be caused due to changes in the amount of daylight one gets.
It's not clear why some people get SAD, and others don't.
SAD can affect anyone, but it’s more common in people who live in northern climates. The symptoms of SAD usually start in the fall and continue through the winter. They may go away during the spring and summer months.
What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?
Symptoms of SAD can include feeling sad, hopeless, or anxious; having low energy; losing interest in activities you usually enjoy; eating more than usual or less than usual, and sleeping too much or too little (Sleep hypnosis).
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Eating more than usual or less than usual
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling down and sad for most of the days
- Losing interest in the day to day activities
- Feeling sluggish
- Experiencing the weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, and mood swings
- Feeling guilty and hopeless
- Suicidal thoughts with no more interest in life
Specific SAD symptoms during summer and spring
Here are the listed SAD symptoms that most patients experience during summer:
- Weight loss
- Increased irritability
- Poor appetite
- Anxiety and agitation
Specific SAD symptoms during winter and Fall
Here are the SAD symptoms specific to winter and Fall and often referred to as winter depression:
- Low energy levels
- High fluctuation in appetite, especially carbs cravings
- weight gain
What are the causes of SAD?
Here are some of the crucial factors that may contribute to the case of SAD:
According to researchers, a lack of sunlight may cause depression by causing a decrease in serotonin, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that affects mood. Low light might induce a fall in serotonin, leading to sadness.
The body's level of melatonin, which influences sleep patterns and mood, can be thrown off by the change in season.
Your Biological Clock
A reduced amount of sunlight may cause Winter-onset SAD in the fall and winter. This drop-in sunshine might throw your body's internal clock out of sync, leading to sadness.
What are the risk factors associated with SAD?
SAD is found to be more prevalent in women and younger adults. Here are the specific factors that increase the risk of SAD:
Low Vitamin D: Vitamin D is crucial to boost your serotonin activity. Our skin produces vitamin D from the sunlight. If you are not getting enough sunlight or your diet does not include the food having enough Vitamin D, you are likely to experience low Vitamin D levels.
Family History: People suffering from SAD are likely to have this running in their families. They may have a family history of depression as well.
Away from the equator: People living away from the south or north equator commonly experience SAD. One of the most important reasons for this is the lesser sunlight leading to low Vitamin D levels in the body.
Bipolar disorder: If you are experiencing bipolar disorder or major depression, it may worsen seasonally.
How is SAD treated?
There are four main ways to treat SAD: light therapy, psychotherapy, medication, and Vitamin D.
Light therapy has been a standard practice for the treatment of SAD since the 1980s. It attempts to restore typical daylight levels in people with SAD by exposing them to an intense light every day throughout the darker months.
For this therapy, the patient sits in front of a solid lightbox (10,000 lux) every day for around 30 to 45 minutes first thing in the morning from fall through spring. Because these light boxes filter out the potentially harmful UV radiation, making this a safe treatment for most individuals.
However, individuals who have certain eye disorders or take medications that boost their sensitivity to light may need to utilize non-solar treatment options or light therapy under medical guidance.
Vitamin D nutritional supplements might aid in treating SAD if they are deficient, as many people with this condition have. According to studies, Vitamin D nutritional supplements may help alleviate symptoms in individuals suffering from SAD.
However, there is a lack of evidence on whether vitamin D is effective in treating SAD and no definitive conclusions.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressant medications used to treat SAD when symptoms occur. These medicines can significantly improve patients' moods.
Fluoxetine, citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, and escitalopram are commonly prescribed SSRIs.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also given the go-ahead to the second type of antidepressant, bupropion, in an extended-release pill form that can help prevent the recurrence of seasonal major depressive episodes when taken every day from the fall through early spring.
Medication can have adverse effects. Discuss the potential danger of using these medicines for your condition with your doctor.
You might need to try several antidepressant drugs before finding one that improves your symptoms without producing undesired side effects.
Visit the NIMH Mental Health Medications page for basic information about SSRIs, bupropion, and other mental health medications. Visit the FDA's website for the most up-to-date information on medicines, side effects, and warnings.
Psychotherapy or “Talk Therapy”
CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is a type of talk therapy that aims to teach people how to manage difficult circumstances; it has also been applied to those suffering from SAD (CBT-SAD).
It is usually done in two weekly group sessions for six weeks, and it focuses on replacing evil thoughts about the winter season.
CBT-SAD comprises seven phases of treatment, with the first four focusing on cognitive skill development and exposure to negative thinking.
The fifth phase is a combination of fun and education in addition to distraction from your sadness that also includes activities like snowball fights, singing circles, spending time outdoors playing games or doing anything else enjoyable.
Both CBT and light treatment were equally effective in reducing SAD symptoms when studied directly against one another. Several symptoms appeared to improve faster with light therapy than CBT.
However, a long-term study that followed SAD patients for two winters found that the beneficial effects of CBT persisted longer over time.
If you think you have SAD, it's essential to see your doctor. Treatment for SAD may include lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise.
What are the various complications involved with SAD?
SAD is a serious issue that should be identified and addressed in time. Along with other types of depression, SAD can worsen over time if ignored at the initial stages. Some of the complications associated with SAD are:
- Eating and anxiety disorders
- Work and School issues
- Suicidal behaviour and thoughts
- Substance abuse
- Social withdrawal
Clinical Trials Studying SAD
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) supports a wide range of research, including clinical trials that explore new strategies to prevent, detect, or treat illnesses and disorders—including SAD.
Although people can benefit from being part of a clinical trial, they should be aware that the primary goal of a clinical study is to gather new scientific knowledge.
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and around the country conduct clinical trials with patients and healthy volunteers.
Discuss clinical trials, their advantages and drawbacks, and whether one is suitable for you with your health care provider.
Visit the NIMH Clinical Trials page for more information about clinical research and how to locate clinical trials being conducted all around the United States.
Is there any way I can prevent the SAD?
There are no proven ways to prevent SADly. Although, if the proper steps are initiated to manage its symptoms, you can escape from getting it worse.
The prescribed treatments help turn SAD worse over time. You will be able to predict the time of year when you experience the symptoms, such as a change in appetite, mood, and energy levels.
When should I talk to my doctor?
The first step toward recognizing your condition and discussing it with a doctor is recognizing the signs of depressive disorders. If you're having these five characteristic symptoms of a depressive illness (as defined by the DSM-5) on most days, talk to your doctor.
Losing Interest in Activities
You've probably lost interest in or stopped caring about your favourite activities, such as spending time with friends, exercising, or enjoying hobbies. You may observe this symptom yourself, or a loved one may point it out.
High mood swings and emptiness
When you're encountering depression, it's common to feel many different things. Typical signs include a loss of pleasure or anticipation and an overall sense of emptiness.
The depressed mood can be indicated by irritability or increased temper. Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness or misplaced guilt may also creep into your daily existence.
Severe fluctuations in appetite and weight
If you're not dieting, significant weight reduction or gain might indicate depression. On most days, depression induces increases and decreases in appetite. To obtain comfort foods or take a break from eating, you may alter what, how, and when you eat.
Unusual sleeping pattern
Depression can mess with your sleep schedule, making it difficult to obtain a whole night's rest. Depression is linked to insomnia, which includes waking up and not being able to go back to sleep, and hypersomnia or oversleeping (Narcolepsy).
You feel lethargic most of the time.
When you're emotionally upset, your body feels it as well. Depression may take a toll on your energy reserves, and you might find yourself exhausted on most days. Depression is characterized by slowness and lack of activity.
Exhaustion, guilt, and inadequacy can make it seem impossible to keep up with your regular responsibilities. You may not have the energy to maintain your house or care for children or pets, and even small activities like showering might feel overwhelming.
What are the other effective ways to ease SAD?
Here are some of the effective options that you should consider to ease SAD:
Prepare yourself for seasonal alterations
Consider preparing your mind as you prepare our homes for the fall-to-winter shift. Regularly scheduling time for vigorous activities may help people feel better physically and psychologically.
It's usually preferable to prepare yourself for the winter season by starting in the fall season - going on pleasurable activities, forming friend group discussions and excursions, taking pleasure in hobbies, and participating in clubs or volunteer work.
It's much easier to get back into things before they start feeling the winter blues than trying to break out of them after they've already begun.
Dawn simulators can help some people with SAD. These devices are alarm clocks rather than waking you abruptly with beeping or loud music. They produce light that gradually increases in intensity, just like the sun.
The best ones use full-spectrum light, which is closest to natural sunlight. Researchers found that dawn simulators were as effective as light therapy for people with mild SAD.
Burgess says that people may drink more for many different reasons during times of stress or sadness. "When someone is feeling 'down,' they are more likely to drink alcohol, but drinking causes further depression, hence the downward spiral.
Also, if you notice that you're drinking on more days of the week than before or drinking a more significant amount of alcohol than you used to, these changes could eventually lead to an addiction.
Burgess says it's essential to determine what's behind the behaviour. She suggests asking yourself, "Why do I think I'm drinking more?" If you think you may have a drinking problem, talking to your doctor can also help.
Using Aroma Therapy
When it comes to SAD in particular, essential oils could potentially influence the brain area responsible for controlling moods and the body's internal clock that influences sleep and appetite.
Although the evidence for aromatherapy may be limited, using essential oils could be a safe and straightforward way to improve mental well-being — particularly when paired with another relaxing activity, like taking a bath or enjoying company by candlelight.
The safest ways to use aromatherapy include body oils, aroma sticks, and jewellery made with absorbent materials to which you can apply essential oils.
Taking a winter vacation to warmer climates can help alleviate symptoms of SAD by helping you escape cold and overcast skies, Kalayjian says. Even a short break from your daily routine in a sunny place can be helpful with winter depression.
“The excitement that can lift your mood can start as you prepare for your vacation and linger for a few weeks after you return,” Kalayjian adds. Malinowski plans visits to warm-weather friends in winter for just that reason.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined your travel plans, consider planning a "staycation" instead — taking time off from work and finding ways to experience typical vacation activities within your own home and community.