Dealing with depression is never any fun. This is particularly true if you experience a dip in your mood during certain times of the year, such as late fall and winter.

Specifically, we are talking about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). While the term SAD has been somewhat trivialized over the years, this form of depression can be a serious mental health issue.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal depression is a sub-type of depression, which is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Many people think SAD is a stand-a-lone disorder but it’s not. To be diagnosed with SAD, you must first receive a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), using established criterion outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the APA.

What causes SAD?

There are a number of factors that scientists think contribute to the onset of SAD. The primary reasons likely include:

Drop in Serotonin:  Sunlight helps you to produce a brain chemical called serotonin, which works as a neurotransmitter and helps to regulate and balance mood. Less sunlight can mean decreased serotonin levels. A lack of serotonin can cause feelings of sadness (aka depression).

Melatonin Changes: Melatonin is another brain chemical that is thought to be related to SAD. This particular hormone helps to regulate mood and sleep. Scientific research has found that an imbalance in melatonin levels are may contribute to various forms of depression, including SAD.

Circadian Rhythm: Your body generally runs on a body clock known as circadian rhythm. A lack of sunlight is thought to disrupt this rhythm, which helps to regulate energy levels throughout the day. Changes in circadian rhythm during the winter months are thought cause feelings of sadness and depression.

What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The symptoms of SAD closely follow what we typically see in other forms of depression. The major symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Social withdraw and isolation
  • Craving high carb foods
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Problems concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

Note: It is important to state here that other health conditions (including use of certain types of medications) can cause these SAD like symptoms. This is why it is important to be evaluated by your doctor for a complete evaluation to rule out other symptomatic reasons.

Number of People with SAD

The research on the number of people affected by SAD is all over the map. Some studies indicate that around 6% of the population has an intense form of SAD. Other studies suggest that many more people (around 14%) live with milder forms of this depression subset.

According to the current data on SAD, you are more likely to have SAD if:

  • You live in a higher latitude
  • You are female
  • You are of Northern European decent.

3 Tips for coping with SAD

Once it has been determined that your symptoms are not medically related, it may be time to consider SAD as the culprit. SAD can be diagnosed by your doctor or by a helping professional, such as a licensed psychotherapist.

If you receive a diagnosis of SAD, here are three practical tips for coping:

1. More Sunlight

To the extent possible, try to increase your exposure to natural sunlight. A simple solution might be getting up 15 minutes earlier each day and opening your window shades to let in all of the rays from the sun’s light spectrum.  Some people sit in a chair and look outside to take in the view. Others engage in mindfulness based activities, such as meditation, in close proximity to a window. FYI: Never stare at the sun as this can cause blindness.

In many places, sunlight is simply not readily available in a meaningful way. This is particularly true if you live in geographic areas such as the upper Midwest, northern Canada and certain places in Europe. To compensate, some folks use a “SAD lamp”. The lamp provides artificial light and simulates the sun’s rays at dawn. If you opt to purchase a SAD lamp, it is suggested that you buy one with an intensity of 10,000 Lux. You can buy these lamps online at a fairly reasonable price.

2. Exercise

By engaging in physical activities during wintertime, you help your body to increase its production of serotonin and other brain chemicals responsible for mood elevation. You don’t have to visit the gym either to experience benefits. Taking a walk in the morning or mid-day can be a practical way to boost your energy levels and spirits. During cold weather months, some people opt to stay inside and do things like stair running. Others invest money in a piece of cardio equipment, like a treadmill or bicycle machine.

If you are married or in a relationship with someone who also has SAD, exercising together may be helpful to both you and your significant other. Some therapists who specialize in working with couples who are dual diagnosed with SAD suggest both parties in the relationship work out together. The potential benefits include reduced irritability, greater sexual stamina and higher relational satisfaction.

3. Counseling 

Counseling, particularly various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, have been clinically proven to help ameliorate symptoms of depression. Possible benefits of counseling for depressed people with SAD as a specifier include the disruption of irrational thoughts, feelings of personal empowerment and basic catharsis.

Talk therapy also provides a safe space to share some of the emotional pain associated with SAD, which can help lessen feelings of sadness and despair. Helping professionals who are trained in the treatment of SAD can also help you find healthy ways of coping with unpleasant emotions.

Final Thoughts

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real mental health issue. If left unchecked, it can rob you of energy and motivation. It can also make you feel pretty darn miserable. If you suspect you have SAD, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Your physician will go about the business of ruling out medical causes for what you are feeling and likely refer you to a helping professional who is trained in treating people with depression. The good news about SAD is that it can be treated.

Note: If you are concerned that you may hurt yourself, please call 800-273-TALK, dial 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency room.