Some people look forward to the change of seasons, when the weather becomes crisp and cool, making for shorter days and cozy nights.
Others may notice a change in their mood when the weather turns and there’s less daylight. In fact, for some people, these changes can trigger a type of mental health condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression.
Signs of SAD
It’s common to feel a little down when the days get shorter and darker. This is often known as the “winter blues” and isn’t a cause for concern. However, people with SAD can have severe symptoms that occur for four to five months of the year. Usually, seasonal depression happens in the fall and winter months, although some people have symptoms in the spring and summer.
Symptoms of seasonal depression (particularly in the fall and winter) include:
- Feeling depressed most days for a large part of the day
- Losing interest in favorite activities
- Having sleep problems, often sleeping too much in the winter
- Gaining weight
- Lacking energy
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling worthless
- Having problems concentrating
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Having thoughts of suicide
What Causes SAD?
While no one knows the exact cause of SAD, researchers have found that people with this mood disorder may have reduced regulation of serotonin in the brain. This chemical helps control your mood and can be affected by sunlight. Other studies have revealed that people with SAD may have too much of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, as well as not enough vitamin D due to lack of sunlight exposure. These changes can throw off the normal rhythm of your body.
What Treatments Help SAD Symptoms?
If you think you may be suffering from seasonal depression, talk to your doctor right away. Several treatments can help, either individually or combined:
- Light therapy: This involves sitting in front of a bright light from a light therapy box, which filters out harmful UV rays, for 30 to 45 minutes per day. This usually works best when done in the morning.
- Talk therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy with a mental health professional can help some people learn how to banish negative thoughts.
- Medication: Antidepressants, usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can effectively treat SAD in some people.
- Vitamin D: Taking vitamin D supplements can help people who have a deficiency.
- Healthy habits: Eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting plenty of sleep and spending time with family and friends are all ways to feel more positive.
If you experience depression at the same time every year, you might consider seeing your doctor before symptoms begin. Starting treatment in advance can help lessen or prevent the effects of SAD.