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Seasonal Affective Disorder and How to Minimize Its Impact

Jan 25, 2023 | Depression, Mental Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a recurring depression disorder that begins in the fall or winter months. As soon as the weather begins to take a turn, some people will start to feel the effects of the change. The days ultimately become shorter, and there is an increased period of dark or gloom, which has the power to dramatically affect those that are sensitive to it. 

SAD also has been noted to take place in the spring and summer months but at a drastically lower rate of incidence. This tends to be applicable to those that live farther away from the equator and are female. In general, winter is the season when we witness the highest cases of SAD. Although this is an unavoidable experience for some, there are some helpful, targeted actions that can minimize its impact.

What Causes SAD?

In short, SAD is caused by a change in the seasons, which results in a decrease in sunlight. Those that are impacted by SAD have a lower ability to regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin than the average person. Because of this, the weather has a large impact on their levels. As sunlight decreases, so do serotonin levels, resulting in a depressed state.

Another hormone that plays a role in the development of SAD is melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for inducing a feeling of sleepiness that helps us both fall asleep and stay asleep. It is released in response to darkness and plays a prominent role in circadian rhythm regulation. During the winter months, though, the increased presence of darkness actually induces too much melatonin production and can cause a lethargic and unmotivated demeanor. This contributes to the depressed-like state that is seen with SAD.

SAD is roughly four times more likely to occur in women than in men. In addition, an estimated 10 million people per year experience the disorder, making it a prevalent issue. 

It is important to note that based on where you live, the likelihood of developing SAD can either increase or decrease. Those that live close to the equator experience very little fluctuation when it comes to the season. For this reason, their bodies are able to regulate their melatonin and serotonin more efficiently. 

In contrast, those that live in areas with drastic variations of sunlight throughout the year are far more likely to develop the disorder. An example of this can be seen in the state of Alaska. Alaska has the second-highest incidence of suicide in the entire country. Part of the reasoning for this is the sun stays down for 18 to 24 hours during some portions of the year. This complete lack of sunlight can cause extreme depression in some. Sunlight is arguably the number one factor that impacts the development of SAD.

Signs And Symptoms

The most obvious sign of SAD is a shift in physical or mental states as the seasons shift. Therefore, if you notice that you experience a change in the way that you feel at certain times of the year, this is a good indication that you may be suffering from SAD.

The symptoms of SAD are quite similar to depression, which occurs year-round. The distinction, though, is that it will wane as soon as the season begins to move towards spring. Again, this is a result of the increased sunlight returning. Some of the most common symptoms we see in those experiencing SAD are lethargy, irritability, oversleeping, weight gain, lack of movement, isolation, and sugar cravings. 

As with depression in general, severity and symptoms can vary from person to person. SAD may induce feelings that are more so like the winter blues, but it may also cause a major depressive period in some. In some cases, SAD can be so severe that it results in suicidal thoughts. It is important to note that there is no exact series of symptoms that each person will experience. Regardless of the severity, SAD can affect just about anyone as the seasons shift.

What Is The Treatment For SAD

The treatment options for SAD are similar to those for year-round depression. First and foremost, a medical professional will need to assess the severity of the seasonal affective disorder. If medication is deemed necessary, this is an important intervention to consider. Because SAD most often occurs in those that have reduced ability to regular serotonin, medication can be helpful with this process. For those with less severe cases, talk therapy and light therapy are two interventions that have the power to decrease the effects of SAD.

Talk therapy, or CBT, can help those affected verbalize their feelings and provide an outlet for expressing some of the depressive thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most successful interventions for mental health disorders. Additionally, this can help those experiencing SAD gain more information about the condition itself. By learning more about why it occurs and how to help reduce the impact, the symptoms can be drastically decreased. Finally, talking with a therapist can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

Light therapy is an intervention that targets the mechanisms in the brain specifically. The process is incredibly simple and involves sitting in front of a lightbox for anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour per day. It is best done in the morning, first thing, if possible. This way, the positive results can last throughout the period of being awake. This artificial light replicates the sunlight that we rely on for vitamin D and serotonin production. This intervention has been shown to reduce symptoms of SAD in as soon as a day or two but could take as much as two weeks for others. Staying consistent and allowing the body to adjust to the artificial light is important for both seeing and feeling a change.

How To Minimize The Symptoms

Aside from CBT and light therapy, there are plenty of other methods to explore to reduce the severity of the symptoms of SAD. One great way to increase dopamine is by engaging in daily exercise. Even something as simple as an outdoor walk can have a dramatic impact on depression-like symptoms. This also involves getting outside of the house, which is important for fighting loneliness and isolation tendencies. 

Eating a healthy diet is also beneficial as it can help improve gut health, which is directly linked to mental health. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables with little to no processed foods is important for regulating gut flora. Additionally, processed foods can cause blood sugar spikes that result in a crash-like feeling. This can further perpetuate feelings of depression.

Setting and sticking to a regular sleep schedule is also crucial when it comes to fighting SAD symptoms. As mentioned earlier, melatonin plays an intricate role in the development of Seasonal Affective Disorder. By creating consistent times for waking and sleeping, you can help your body regulate the production of this hormone. This is especially important for those that feel increased fatigue or lethargy. Although giving in to this feeling may be challenging to resist, it is vital for developing a regular sleep schedule.

If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, know that you are not alone and that there are plenty of actionable steps that you can take to reduce the severity of the symptoms. When taking the proper steps to reduce SAD symptoms, it is important to be patient as it may take some time for the body to adjust. Because SAD is not simply a resistance to weather changes but a biological response to a lack of sunlight, it cannot be changed overnight. Staying consistent with regular exercise, light therapy, and proper sleep can make a significant difference over a period of days to weeks.

New Dimensions Can Help!

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.

Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.

 

 

References

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  • Melrose S. Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Overview of Assessment and Treatment Approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015;2015:178564. doi: 10.1155/2015/178564. Epub 2015 Nov 25. PMID: 26688752; PMCID: PMC4673349.
  • Nussbaumer-Streit, B., Pjrek, E., Kien, C. et al. Implementing prevention of seasonal affective disorder from patients’ and physicians’ perspectives – a qualitative study. BMC Psychiatry 18, 372 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1951-0
  • https://www.bu.edu/articles/2019/seasonal-affective-disorder/