Seasonal Affective Disorder, shortened to SAD, is a term that many people use to describe the feeling of being depressed when the season changes. Typically, it coincides with a time change or weather change. If this is a term you have heard recently and believe you may fit into the category of SAD, here are some things you should know.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Despite the fact many still refer to it as Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is technically no longer a term used by professionals. In the DSM 5, it was re-categorized as a subset of depression. Those who suffer from what was once termed as Seasonal Affective Disorder may now fall into the category of Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern. This may seem like jargon, but it is helpful to be educated on the current terminology so that you are able to communicate effectively with medical professionals when needed.
To understand what this seasonal pattern covers, let’s first take a general look at what depression is defined as today. Depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and is typically accompanied by a loss of interest in things one previously enjoyed. Depression feels like you are looking out a cloudy window, still trying to see what’s outside. It can feel isolating and lonely. Dependant upon the person, depression will vary in intensity and length. It is important to always seek professional help if one is feeling depressed.
For some, these feelings of depression are aligned with seasonal changes. Changes in light and temperature can cause chemical imbalances in the brain that increase feelings of sadness. The less daylight we get, the less time we have to soak up sunlight. This is why it is often in winter that people experience depression with a seasonal pattern.
How Do I Know If I Have It?
If you have been reading this so far and feel like it is describing something you are currently experiencing or have experienced in the past, please do not stop here. Seek help from a medical professional, go to a counselor, tell a trusted friend. Allow people to come into your life that will be able to help and guide you through this time. To know if you are struggling with this mood change, it is important to look at your past seasonal history. Have you experienced a mood change during a certain part of the year (typically winter) and then felt better during the next season? If this has occurred for at least two years in a row, you may be experiencing depression with a seasonal pattern.
Here Are 6 Things to Know about Seasonal Affective Disorder or Depression with a Seasonal Pattern:
1. Seasonal Depression Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For
There are specific symptoms of this type of depression. A symptom is an indicator that a certain medical diagnosis may be present. To be diagnosed with this there must be at least 5 of these symptoms present for at least two consecutive years during a specific season.
-Decreased sexual interest
-Lack of interest in usual activities and decreased socialization
These can vary from each individual, but if you identify with several of these symptoms it may be time to see a professional such as a counselor or doctor to discuss the possibility of having this diagnosis.
2. Your Personal History Matters
There is a greater likelihood of developing depression with a seasonal pattern for women, those with a family history or individual history of depression, or as a younger adult. It is four times more likely for a woman to develop seasonally patterned depression than a man. That means there is an 80% chance that a woman will develop this instead of a man; this is a significant difference. Studies are still being conducted to explain the connection. Many researchers believe it is due to the way estrogen affects serotonin levels. As they continue to research and discover, it is important to be cognizant of this likelihood if you are a female and experience the symptoms previously listed.
Family history or individual history of depression increases the likelihood of experiencing seasonally patterned depression. This is true for depression in general and all the subsets of depression, such as seasonally patterned depression. Those who are younger adults are more likely to develop depression with a seasonal pattern. Typically it is reported more after the age of 20 years old.
3. Your Location Has an Impact
As far as geographical location goes, the further you are from the equator and the more your location is affected by the lack of sunlight hours, the more likely you are to experience depression with a seasonal pattern. Less sunlight is a large contributing factor to developing this diagnosis. If you live in a place that drastically changes in hours of sunlight then you are more susceptible to seasonally patterned depression. Some professionals recommend that if you are able it is beneficial to take a trip to a sunnier place to counteract the side effects of less sunlight. Yet, there are other countries like Sweden and Norway where seasonal depression affects very few people; this is due to a different mental outlook on winter in general. In Norway, people look forward to the winter season as it's usually filled with skiing and other fun outdoor activities. There is a general consensus among the Norwegian population that winter is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated with family and friends.
4. Exercise and Healthy Eating Make a Difference
Exercising regularly is another way to decrease the likelihood and intensity of depression during winter seasons. Exercise increases many chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals increase levels of feeling well and decrease pain. Exercise also combats the fatigue that so often accompanies depression with a seasonal pattern.
Vitamin D deficiency may also be present in those struggling with seasonal affective depression. Eating healthy can help to decrease this and many other symptoms of depression. Carbohydrates are often craved because they help increase levels of serotonin. While the body needs these, an overload can cause a crash and increase fatigue. Monitoring intake of carbohydrates is necessary when changing your eating habits to help decrease symptoms.
5. Professional Help Is Available
Several different types of therapy and activities have proved to be a help to those who are suffering from this diagnosis. First, it would be advisable to seek help from a professional. This could be a primary care doctor or a counselor. They can further direct you to what may be helpful in your specific circumstances.
Due to the direct correlation between hours of sunlight and serotonin levels, many people may try light therapy. Light therapy is a device that emits light to mimic outdoor lighting. It is cost-efficient and can be effective in elevating mood and promoting better sleep habits. SSRI’s, antidepressants, may be advisable as a treatment for depression with a seasonal pattern. This is only to be under the care of a medical professional and is more effective in addition to other forms of treatment and not as the only form of treatment.
6. You Are Not Alone
Recent studies show that 10-20% of people are affected by depression with a seasonal effect. It is likely these numbers are under-reported and the percentage is even higher. It can feel isolating, but please know that if you are experiencing these symptoms you are not alone. Telling someone that you have been experiencing these signs and symptoms can be scary. However, it is the way to healing and help. If you do not feel comfortable starting by sharing with a friend or family member, reach out to a counselor and ask for help.
A Prayer for Those with Seasonal Depression
We lift up all who are suffering with seasonal depression. You are our shield and the lifter of our heads. You promise to be close to us and save the crushed in spirit. We ask in your name for delivery from seasonal depression. Oh Lord, more than we ask that depression will be a way that we see how weak we are and how strong You are. May it be a reminder of our great need for a Savior, a Healer, a Counselor. Thank you, Lord, for never leaving us alone and caring for us deeply. You work all things together for our good.
We love you so much. Amen.
Unfortunately, depression with a seasonal effect is all too real for many. Identifying and understanding this diagnosis can lead to empathy towards others and help for our self. We can much better treat this condition when we are aware of what is occurring. The good news of it all is that there are proven and effective therapies to help reduce this struggle for many. We just need to be brave enough to ask for help.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/max-kegfire
Allison Auld is a young professional living in SC. She is a clinical counselor with a passion to help others grow and heal. She enjoys spending time with her friends, family, and good coffee.