How To Deal With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)


While the cooler temperatures and shorter autumn and winter days provide relief from summer heat and sun, they can cause mood swings in some people. These changes can take the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during certain times of the year and then improves as the next season begins. 

SAD is more prevalent during these colder months, said Christina Leal-McKinley, MD, of Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington, Louisiana. Nearly half a million Americans experience symptoms of winter-related SAD each year, and 10 to 20 percent of Americans have less severe symptoms known as winter blues.

While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, some people - including people who live in northern latitudes, people with a family history of SAD, and people with depression or bipolar disorder - are at higher risk for SAD than others. SAD is more like to occur in women than in men.

Researchers have found that light has a lot to do with this disorder: a lack of sunlight can disrupt the body's biological clock, which normally controls mood, sleep, and hormone levels. Regardless of the cause, if left untreated, SAD can affect your everyday life and increase your risk of more serious health problems. 

SAD Signs To Look For

A diagnosis of SAD is made if you have symptoms of depression for two consecutive seasons each season.

Symptoms of depression include: 

  • Depression all day, more days than not 
  • Feelings of hopelessness 
  • Decreased energy level 
  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy 
  • Sleep disorder 


There are also some signs that specifically describe SAD. During the winter months, those with SAD can expect: 

  • Little energy exhaustion 
  • A tendency to overeat and gain weight 
  • Cravings for carbohydrates 
  • Social withdrawal 


Those with summertime SAD may notice the following: 

  • Weight loss or decreased appetite 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness 
  • Periods of violent behavior 


How to Alleviate Symptoms of SAD

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Symptoms usually improve when a new season begins, whether winter gives way to spring or summer gives way to autumn. However, if you are at risk for SAD or have had symptoms in the past, it is important to learn how to identify and manage them so you can prepare for the change of seasons.

"Being aware of your seasonal shifts can help you become more aware of your mood swings," said Dr. McKinley. "We want to try to capture these changes early in the season so that patients don't experience increased sleep problems, irritability and fatigue, all of which are just a few of the downsides that come with depression."

She suggests exercising regularly and observing the same wake-up and bedtime times every day (including weekends).

In addition to building a healthy lifestyle and sleeping routine, here are some of the most common treatment options for SAD:

She also suggests providing your body with whole, nutritious foods that will help maintain your energy levels throughout the day. And make sure you get plenty of natural light: have lunch in a park instead of your desk, open your blinds, and sit closer to bright windows.

Medication

This is usually prescribed as the first line of treatment for SAD. Medications are very effective on their own or can work in conjunction with other treatments. 

Certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are typically used as the first drug of choice for SAD. It is believed that they can help improve your brain's serotonin levels, which can improve your mood. 

"We're going to be prescribing these drugs to try to increase the neurochemicals that control our behavior and mood," said Dr. McKinley.

Your doctor may suggest that you take medication before the season starts, and even after your symptoms have subsided, to make sure they don't return. It is also possible for your doctor to try different medications to find out what works best for you and your symptoms. 

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Light Therapy

This form of treatment has been around since the 1980s, and the main premise behind it is that increased exposure to bright, artificial light during the fall and winter months can relieve symptoms of winter-related SAD.

Treatment usually consists of sitting in front of a lightbox that emits 10,000 lux of cool white fluorescent light for 20 to 60 minutes each morning during the fall and winter months.
Fortunately, you don't have to worry about skin-damaging ultraviolet rays as long as you get a lightbox that filters out UV rays.

Psychotherapy 

Psychotherapy, known as talk therapy, can help with a variety of mental and emotional health conditions, such as SAD, depression, anxiety, trauma, or the loss of a loved one.

There are many different types of talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) works to change behavior and thought patterns so you can learn to focus on and solve problems. It also helps you identify negative thoughts and learn to replace them with positive ones, and can also help you manage the symptoms of SAD.

Whether you've had SAD in the past, are currently dealing with SAD symptoms, or want to control certain lifestyle factors to lower your risk of SAD, Dr. McKinley states that regular appointments with your family doctor are extremely beneficial.

You can discuss any mood swings with her, and she can recommend therapies to try or lifestyle changes that you may need to make. And whenever you experience symptoms, don't be ashamed to talk about them.

"Better to see your doctor sooner than later," said Dr. McKinley. "It is important to know that you are not alone and that help is always available."