It is quite common to experience changes in mood, energy levels, and motivation during the Fall/Winter months. This is sometimes referred to as the “winter blues”. But some people experience a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder. If you are concerned about symptoms you are currently experiencing, the information below can help you determine the difference and what you can do to relieve your symptoms.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered by the American Psychiatric Association to be a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern. It is not considered a separate disorder and people must meet the full criteria for Major Depressive Disorder during specific seasons to receive the diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms
- Feelings of sadness or depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
- Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
- Changes in appetite; usually eating more and craving carbohydrates.
- Changes in sleep; usually sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Trouble concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
There are a variety of options for the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The four major treatments for SAD are:
Medication: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) including Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro are often prescribed for SAD. The FDA has also approved the use of Bupropion, another type of antidepressant, for treating SAD. You should always talk to your doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects to make an educated decision about taking any medication.
Light Therapy: Light therapy has been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms of SAD. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits very bright light for 20 or more minutes a day. It is designed to replace the diminished sunlight of the fall and winter months.
Psychotherapy: Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) involves identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive thoughts. A licensed counselor or therapist can help give tools for changing thoughts and strategies for changing behaviors to reduce symptoms of depression.
Vitamin D: The evidence for the use of Vitamin D has been mixed but some people prefer to start treatment with Vitamin D supplements before trying other therapies. You should talk to your doctor or pharmacist about benefits/risks of Vitamin D supplementation.
There are natural treatments for SAD that may be helpful if you are not ready for more intensive treatments. As with all other treatment options, please consult your physician prior to implementing a new treatment.
Exercise: Regular exercise is helpful in reducing depressive symptoms. In one study, 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill for 10 consecutive days was enough to produce a significant reduction in depression.
Go Outside: Get outside as often as possible, especially when the sun is shining. Sleep with the curtains open. Get as much natural light as possible.
Healthy Diet: Avoid starchy carbohydrates and limit sugar. Focus on lean proteins, fish, and vegetables.
Reach Out: You don’t have to go through this alone! Reach out to friends or family and share your feelings and symptoms. Sometimes having a shoulder to lean on is the best medicine. Be sure to mention these symptoms to your medical care professional.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
The National Institutes of Mental health: https://www.nimh.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
The American Psychiatric Association: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder