What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression. Also known as the "winter blues," typical symptoms of depression begin to occur regularly in the fall, such as October or November, and persist through the winter months, usually lifting around May.

Depressive symptoms with Seasonal Affective Disorder are often milder than with other forms of depression.

Who is at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects women more often than men, and it's onset will usually occur in a person's teens or young adult years. Individuals who live in places that have long winter nights or a greater than average number of overcast days are at greater risk of having SAD.

While not common, there are cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder that bring depressive symptoms during the summer months, rather than during the winter months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can be impacted further by the amount of sunlight a person is exposed to throughout the day, by body temperature, genetics and biology, and hormonal levels. Further, a family history of depression often indicates a higher risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is not a sullen or sad mood that can simply be brushed off. It will persist until treatment is sought and a successful regimen for managing it has been established.

Seasonal Affective Disorder may be caused by a disruption in a person's circadian rhythm, which regulates how and when a person sleeps and eats. When the disruption occurs, the body has a more difficult time managing a body's natural cycle. Melatonin levels, which respond directly to light, also play an important role in a person's circadian rhythm. Serotonin levels can affect mood specifically, and disruption to your normal serotonin levels, production, or uptake may be present or even causal in instances of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder:

Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized by symptoms that are typical of depression. They include:

Symptoms for spring- and summer-onset include:
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia and sleep changes
  • Agitation
  • Weight loss
  • Appetite changes
  • Change in sex drive
In some individuals, spring and summer months can induce symptoms of mania or hypomania, including intensely elevated mood, agitation, racing thoughts, and speech issues. This is a form of Bipolar Disorder, and the diagnostic criteria include the following:
  • Onset of manic or hypomanic symptoms during the same season or time of year for at least two consecutive years.
  • Manic periods are followed by periods with no manic symptoms.
  • No other explanations for elevated mood and manic symptoms.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder:

If you feel sad or down more days than not, and it seems to fluctuate by season, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Seeking medical help can allow for proper diagnosis and/or treatment of your symptoms. Currently there is no specific diagnostic test for Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is often diagnosed by a combination of behavioral and mood histories, as well as self-reports about mood and symptoms. There are several treatment methods for those who struggle with SAD:

  • Medication, such as mood stabilizers and antidepressants, can assist with raising neurotransmitter levels in the brain. Establishing a proper balance of chemicals like serotonin helps to regulate mood. It may take several weeks for these drugs to become effective, so they may be recommended prior to and after depressive symptoms occur.
  • Light therapy is commonly applied in cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder. There is currently little understanding about how and why light therapy works, but it is found to be effective for some individuals who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is important to discuss this treatment option with your medical professional. Light intensity, duration, and time of day are regulated and changed based on the sufferer's symptoms and responsiveness.
  • Psychotherapy is also used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. While SAD is often a biological disorder, psychotherapy can assist in changing thoughts and behaviors that compound the symptoms and responses to the changes in mood and demeanor that come with it.
  • Natural light exposure can be increased by going outside or opening window blinds. This can improve mood and decrease depressive symptoms, as Vitamin D and melatonin have been shown to have an effect on mood regulation and the circadian rhythm.
  • Exercise is also a common and effective treatment for most types of depression and mood disorders.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Depression

Bipolar Disorder

Loving Someone Who Is Depressed

How To Help Someone Who Is Depressed

Additional Seasonal Affective Disorder Resources:

SADA is a UK-based site offering support to those with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

National Alliance on Mental Illness description and treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

KidsHealth provides information and resources for parents about Seasonal Affective Disorder in children.