Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur but are much less common than winter episodes of SAD.
Signs and Symptoms
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not considered as a separate disorder. It is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern. To be diagnosed with SAD, people must meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons (appearing in the winter or summer months) for at least two years. Seasonal depressions must be much more frequent than any non-seasonal depressions.
Symptoms of Major Depression
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleep
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
Symptoms of the Winter Pattern of SAD include:
- Having low energy
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
Symptoms of the less frequently occurring summer seasonal affective disorder include:
- Poor appetite with associated weight loss
- Episodes of violent behavior
Treatments and Therapies
There are four major types of treatment for SAD:
- Light therapy
- Vitamin D
These may be used alone or in combination.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat SAD. The FDA has also approved the use of bupropion, another type of antidepressant, for treating SAD.
As with other medications, there are side effects to SSRIs. Talk to your doctor about the possible risks of using this medication for your condition. You may need to try several different antidepressant medications before finding the one that improves your symptoms without causing problematic side effects. For basic information about SSRIs and other mental health medications, visit NIMH’s Medications webpage. Check the FDA’s website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.
Light therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for SAD since the 1980s. The idea behind light therapy is to replace the diminished sunshine of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light. Symptoms of SAD may be relieved by sitting in front of a lightbox first thing in the morning, on a daily basis from the early fall until spring. Most typically, light boxes filter out the ultraviolet rays and require 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, an amount that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is effective for SAD. Traditional cognitive behavioral therapy has been adapted for use with SAD (CBT-SAD). CBT-SAD relies on basic techniques of CBT, such as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts along with a technique called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation seeks to help the person identify activities that are engaging and pleasurable, whether indoors or outdoors, to improve coping with winter.
At present, vitamin D, supplementation by itself, is not regarded as an effective SAD treatment. The reason behind its use is that low blood levels of vitamin D were found in people with SAD. The low levels are usually due to insufficient dietary intake or insufficient exposure to sunshine. However, the evidence for its use has been mixed. While some studies suggest vitamin D supplementation may be as effective as light therapy, others found vitamin D had no effect.
If you suspect you or someone you know is dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder, connect with a mental health professional for support and guidance.
Adapted from: National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml on January 7, 2020.