When the days are short and the nights are long people’s moods can sag. This could be a normal physical response to less daylight and colder weather, or it could be seasonal affective disorder, not just the “winter blues.”
According to the Mayo Clinic: “Seasonal affective disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. If you're like most people with seasonal affective disorder, your symptoms start in the fall and may continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, seasonal affective disorder causes depression in the spring or early summer.”
The Mayo Clinic advises that people not simply brush this off as a seasonal funk to be endured alone.
What to Look For
- Symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of energy
- Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
Kelly Rohan, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Vermont who is conducting a long-term study on SAD Dr. Rohan spoke with the American Psychological Association about SAD.
“Seasonal affective disorder is a regular seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes during the fall and winter months with periods of full improvement in the spring and summer,” said Dr. Rohan. “The symptoms of SAD are exactly the same as non-seasonal depression symptoms, which can include a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyed activities, excessive fatigue, difficulty concentrating, a significant change in sleep length and thoughts about death or suicide. The only difference with SAD is the seasonal pattern it follows.”
She notes that people at higher latitudes are more likely to experience SAD symptoms, and people may gain weight as they indulge cravings for more starches and sweets. Women are more likely than men to develop SAD.
Symptoms of SAD can be similar to other illnesses, such as hypothyroidism (see our article on Thyroid Awareness Month), so it’s important to get a correct diagnosis from your health care provider before seeking any treatment.
How to Cope
Seasonal affective disorder is considered a serious mental health problem that can be treated by professionals to alleviate the symptoms.
“If you struggle with the changing seasons, experience some of the symptoms mentioned above, have difficulty functioning at school or work or if your symptoms interfere with your ability to interact with your family or others during the winter months, you should talk to your doctor about a referral to a psychologist or find a psychologist yourself,” said Dr. Rohan.
Perhaps the most common treatment for SAD is light therapy using artificial light. “Light therapy devices rigorously tested in clinical trials for SAD emit a controlled amount of cool, white fluorescent or full spectrum light with a built-in screen to filter out harmful ultraviolet rays,” explained Dr. Rohan. “Clinical practice guidelines for SAD recommend daily use of light therapy each year from onset of the first symptom until the time in the spring when SAD symptoms would naturally resolve on their own. Compliance and consistency with the daily regimen are very important for benefits.”
Although light therapy devices are commercially available without a prescription, there are possible side effects, such as headache, eye strain and feeling agitated. Dr. Rohan recommends that any light therapy be used under the supervision of a mental health provider with expertise in light therapy so that the dose of the light can be adjusted to each patient. Antidepressants can also be used for the treatment for SAD.