Seasonal Affective Disorder

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a disorder in which a person experiences a depressed mood during the colder months of the year. During these months, days are shorter, there is less access to sunlight, and it is often too cold to spend time outside. Each of these components contributes to a person suffering from SAD.

Depressed symptoms associated with SAD will typically diminish in the turn of the seasons. They will be mostly absent during warmer, lighter months of the year.

In rare cases, a person will experience SAD in reverse. They will experience symptoms of a depressed mood during the Spring and Summer seasons. While uncommon, it is possible to experience a depressed mood during the seasons that tend to bring more socialization, relaxation and daylight.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

People who suffer from SAD will begin to experience symptoms when the weather begins to change. Whether it becomes colder or warmer, the change in the weather is what will trigger the depressed mood. This depressed mood will come with increasingly uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms will persist through the triggering season.

Symptoms for SAD include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety or dread about the changing of the season
  • Losing interest in enjoyable activities
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Insomnia, hypersomnia or other sleep issues
  • Fluctuations in appetite
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Trouble staying motivated
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Irritability or sensitivity
  • Substance abuse
  • Mood fluctuations (can be particularly severe with cases of bipolar disorder)
  • Changes in eating patterns and appetite
  • Suicidal or harmful thoughts
  • Anxious thoughts and feelings

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There is no one known cause of SAD. People who suffer from SAD may suffer for different reasons. The condition may stem from different issues that are unique to the affected person.

Causes and risk factors for SAD include:

  • Already suffering from an anxiety or mood disorder
  • Being emotionally vulnerable or sensitive by nature
  • Vitamin-D deficiency
  • A decline in serotonin levels in the brain (serotonin is responsible for mood regulation)
  • Disrupted sleep cycle from shorter daylight hours and less activity
  • Family history of SAD
  • Less interaction with friends and family

Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are treatment options available for seasonal affective disorder. Each person with SAD will have a treatment regiment that is unique to their own condition.

Treatment will reflect the underlying causes of their condition of SAD. It will also address any other contributing mental health issues.

Those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, depression or bipolar disorder will receive treatment that also helps with maintaining and minimizing the effects of these conditions. Treatment of SAD may include any of the following techniques:

  • Someone who suffers from SAD may be prescribed antidepressant medication. The medication will help to manage symptoms during the season. A person with SAD may also be instructed to take vitamins and supplements to compensate for the Vitamin-D deficiency and mood swings.
  • Phototherapy, or light therapy, may be recommended to compensate for the low light hours of the seasons. The patient is asked to sit with a light reflecting on them for a period of time each day, to simulate daylight.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps to challenge negative and upsetting thoughts that are only experienced during the depressing seasons of the year. CBT helps to remind the patient that the depressed thoughts are triggered by the seasons, and are not based on reality.
  • Dialectical-behavioral therapy. Dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) teaches mindfulness techniques to cope with depressed mood. DBT uses the following techniques to teach mood regulation skills and coping strategies:
  • Meditation
  • Expressive therapies
  • Mind-body awareness

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