There is a good chance you know about Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD but let me summarize it for you. SAD is a type of depression that primarily affects people during the fall and winter months. SAD can occur in the summer or spring, although this is less common.
- The lower levels of sunlight in the winter and fall, particularly in locations farther from the equator, can disturb your internal clock. This disruption may lead to feelings of depression.
- The change in seasons also can influence your body’s melatonin and serotonin — natural substances that play a role in sleep timing and mood. When combined, these factors may lead to SAD.
Specific symptoms of seasonal depression can include:
- Depression: misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, diminished interest in activities, despair, and apathy.
- Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress.
- Mood changes: extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer.
- Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking.
- Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine.
- Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods resulting in weight gain.
- Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact.
- Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact.
A diagnosis of seasonal depression may be made after two consecutive occurrences of depression that occur and end at the same time every year, with the symptoms subsiding the rest of the year.
- In a given year, about 5 percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression.
- Four out of five people who have seasonal depression are women.
- The main age of onset of seasonal depression is between 20 and 30 years of age, however symptoms can appear earlier.
- Typically, the further one is from the equator, the more at risk they are for seasonal depression.
- Light box therapy is particularly useful. Light boxes mimic outdoor light by emitting a broad-spectrum ultraviolet light. The most common prescription is 30 minutes of light box use at the beginning of every morning, with the box 12 to 24 inches away. The intensity of the light box is recorded in lux, which is a measure of the amount of light you receive at a specific distance from a light source. The recommended intensity of the light typically is 10,000 lux.
- Many people use light boxes while getting ready for the day, reading the paper or having breakfast. Again, starting light box therapy in early autumn may help prevent SAD from developing during the winter months.
Medication also may be part of treatment for SAD. If you’ve had SAD in the past, starting to take medication in early fall before the days get significantly shorter may prevent SAD symptoms or, if symptoms do appear, it can reduce their length and severity.
Some forms of prevention that can help include beginning light therapy in the early fall before the onset of symptoms, spending less time with ipads and phones, exercising more, increasing the amount of light at home, meditation and other stress management techniques, spending more time outside, and visiting climates that have more sun.
There are some self-care steps you can take all year long that may help reduce your risk of SAD. They include exercising regularly, maintaining healthy sleep habits and a predictable sleep/wake cycle, eating a healthy diet and limiting the amount of sugary foods you eat.
Several people I know, including family members, who have been treated for years for general depression and later discovered they suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder. My hope is that this information may be helpful.
If you’ve been diagnosed with SAD in the past or you suspect you have it, talk to your doctor about prevention and treatment options. Even if SAD can’t always be prevented, there are treatments available that can help you successfully manage your symptoms and make the winter months easier to take.
1.The Mayo Clinic
2. Darren Cotterell. “Pathogenesis and management of seasonal affective disorder.” Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry, Volume 14, Issue 5, Version of Record online: 7 OCT 2010
3. Stuart L. Kurlansik, Annamarie D. Ibay. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(11):1037-1041.
4. Dr. William Leasure, Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota
I am professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where for 30 years I taught classes in counseling theories, counseling methods, group counseling, practicum and psychodrama. In addition to my current book, One Hand Clapping (2015), I wrote Counseling and Drama: Psychodrama A' Deux in (2009) which was translated into Mandarin and published in Taiwan in 2013. I appreciate any comments.