With wintery weather comes shorter days and chilly temperatures. For many, this marks the start of the cheerful holiday season. For others, however, the lack of sunlight and colder weather cause a downward shift in mood. If you consistently suffer from a decrease in your mental health when the seasons change, you could have something called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is a climate-dependent depression.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized by a significant drop in energy and mood during the fall and winter months that begins and ends around the same time each year. While it can also happen in summer, winter Seasonal Affective Disorder is much more common.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are many symptoms of SAD, including but not limited to:
- Loss of energy: Seasonal Affective Disorder often causes low energy and can make you feel sluggish and lethargic. This can also lead to changes in appetite.
- Lack of interest: SAD also causes you to lose interest in hobbies or pursuits you enjoyed in the past, as well as a decrease in your ability to concentrate.
- Mood changes: People with this disorder also report feeling down for much of the day, as well as irritability and, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts.
Overall, the National Institute of Mental Health gives three conditions that define a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
- The individual must have symptoms of depression.
- Their depression must be significantly more severe during a specific time of the year.
- These depressive episodes must happen more frequently than other episodes they might have had throughout their life.
If you are experiencing these symptoms or a general flare-up of depression around the wintertime, it may be time to see a doctor about treating seasonal affective disorder.
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Knowing the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and its causes can help identify signs that you are at higher risk for SAD. Look out for these factors to have a better understanding of this condition.
- Reduced sunlight exposure often changes bodily functions. As the days get shorter and you are able to get less sun, you may see changes in your mood. Decreased sunlight exposure affects people’s circadian rhythms or their inner clock and can cause depression. A lack of vitamin D due to reduced sunlight can also be a contributing factor since vitamin D is essential for the body to create serotonin, a neurochemical that creates the feeling of happiness. This is dangerous for many but especially seniors. As the body ages, the functions that produce vitamin D from sunlight become less and less efficient, which means that the elderly are at an increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. Mobility problems that are common in older adults also prevent you from going outside as much as necessary, increasing your risk for SAD.
- Overproduction of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that causes sleepiness and is essential to the body’s normal sleep cycle. However, people with SAD overproduce it, which leads to feeling tired more often.
- Genetic factors also play a role. A family history of SAD may put you at higher risk.
- Living farther from the equator. SAD is more common in regions farther north of the equator since the longer winters and shorter summers reduce sunlight exposure.
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder severely affects people’s quality of life, and treatments can mitigate it. Before beginning any treatments, consult a doctor or healthcare provider, especially if you take other medications or treatments. Some of the most common treatments for SAD are:
- Light therapy: There are many different ways to increase light exposure. Popular options include lightboxes, dawn simulators, and other wearable light-emitting devices.
- Antidepressant medication: These medications can help many people who suffer from SAD but require special attention from a healthcare provider to avoid adverse effects.
- Talk therapy: Talk therapy is a common treatment for depression that can also benefit those with seasonal depression.
No matter what type of treatment you seek for potential SAD symptoms, make sure it’s right for your health and lifestyle. Seasonal Affective Disorder can significantly affect your life, so getting help will lead to a much happier winter.