What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

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Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that comes on with the shorter days and colder weather of wintertime. Not to be taken lightly, SAD is more than just “the winter blues”. Rather, it is a serious mental health condition that affects daily functioning, relationships, and quality of life.

Signs of winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder usually begin in late fall or early winter and dissipate with the arrival of spring. Symptoms include feelings of sadness, fatigue, or melancholy that set in with the colder winter months. The reverse, summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder, can also occur but is much less common. In the United States, people generally experience the greatest symptoms of SAD in the winter months of January and February. 

As SAD is a type of serious depression, it shares many of the same symptoms and warning signs. Low energy, lack of excitement or motivation, feeling depressed the majority of the time, irritability, and changes in appetite or sleep patterns are all indicators someone is experiencing depression. 

Signs of more severe depression, whether seasonally induced or not, include feeling hopeless, worthless, being unable to get out of bed, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If you or someone you know is showing any of these signs, please seek help immediately.

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Other signs specific to winter-pattern SAD include oversleeping and overeating, especially overindulgence in carbohydrates, possible weight gain, and not wanting to go out to socialize with others in favor of staying in and “hibernating”.

Not surprisingly, people living farther north, in Alaska or New England for example, are more at risk for seasonal mood disorders. Women and young adults are also more at risk than men, as are people with pre-existing mental health concerns, such as bi-polar disorder or anxiety, and those with a family history of psychological conditions.

How to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder:

Although experts are not entirely certain what causes SAD, it is generally agreed that seasonal depression is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by fewer daylight hours. As the days become shorter, our circadian rhythms can be thrown off, causing our brains to produce too much melatonin (the sleep hormone) or not enough serotonin (the chemical that regulates moods). 

Whatever the cause, here are some ways to treat seasonal mood disorders. 

  1. The first step is to talk to a mental health profession. She or he can help you to identify the condition and help you decide on the best treatment options.

  2. The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy or exposure to artificial light. Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light box (containing no harmful UV rays) for ten to thirty minutes first thing in the morning. The idea is to replace the missing natural sunlight in order to help balance and regulate chemicals in the brain. 

  3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or “talk therapy”, is another treatment option. CBT for SAD can be conducted in groups where participants work on building resilience for difficult situations and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, or one-on-one with a therapist. CBT therapy can also support you in planning and following through with fun and engaging activities that increase mood and outlook on life. *Light therapy and CBT are often successfully used together to treat seasonal depression.

  4. When appropriate and needed, SAD can be treated with antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Please talk to your doctor about treatment options, benefits, and possible side effects before taking any medication.

  5. Finally, self-care is a wonderful way to treat SAD. Healthy eating, daily exercise, spending time in nature (and soaking up as much as that natural sunlight as possible!), mindfulness and meditation, connecting with loved ones, and making time for activities that bring you joy are all fantastic ways to combat seasonal depression. 

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Interested in learning more? Contact us today. Our therapists at The Relationship Therapy Center are here to help!

Other Services offered at The Relationship Therapy Center in California:

In addition to individual therapy, Our Sacramento area counseling clinics located in Roseville and Fair Oaks, CA are pleased to offer a variety of mental health services. We will discuss the importance of self-care and emotional support to help you cope and to discover ways to find healthy ways of dealing with stress.   

Individual therapy can be beneficial, with the right therapist. Our compassionate therapists are trained to walk you through the process and help you find healing and peace. Please contact our therapy office to learn more about the many ways we can help you and your loved ones heal, grow, and love healthy.