What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What it is, what the symptoms are, and how it is treated?

by Paul Jozsef

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder - Paul Jozsef Counselling & Coaching | Montreal

By the age of 40, approximately 50 percent of Canadians will have experienced a mental illness. Roughly half of those people never sought medical treatment for said illness. With at least one in five Canadians experiencing a mental health problem in any given year, mental health is undoubtedly a pressing issue that affects a large swath of Canadian society.

While most people shy away from discussions about mood and depressive disorders, one that can easily slip under the radar is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Those suffering from undiagnosed SAD can be left feeling emotionally low, causing significant disruption to sleep, health, mood, social life and work.

This article will give an in-depth overview of SAD, how to recognize the symptoms and the best treatment for overcoming seasonal depression.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a form of depression that occurs with the changing of seasons, more specifically, in autumn and winter. During the colder, darker months, people with SAD experience symptoms of depression such as fatigue, low energy, and a feeling of hopelessness. Not to be confused with the ‘winter blues,’ which is usually a fleeting feeling, SAD can significantly impact one’s emotional health and general well-being.

Symptoms can last for as long as four to five months in a year, with some symptoms differing and shifting from winter to summer. Though not common, SAD can also trigger insomnia, anxiety or agitation during spring and summer, which means SAD is not specifically relevant to winter. For those with bipolar disorder, people with SAD can experience heightened mania levels in the summer, followed by depression in the winter.

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

People with SAD can experience a host of symptoms such as loss of interest in social activities, oversleeping or insomnia, changes to appetite, difficulty concentrating and a feeling of depression that doesn’t dissipate. For some, it can be debilitating and have a significant impact on one’s quality of life.

Whether you are experiencing one or all these symptoms, it is worth visiting your doctor to get a check-up. Undiagnosed and left on its own, SAD can have a negative impact on work, social life and relationships. If your sleep and appetite have changed, accompanied by ‘low’ feelings for more than two weeks, book an appointment to see your doctor. Early intervention and treatment are less likely to lead to unhealthy coping strategies that don’t resolve the underlying problem.

If you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, do not delay in seeing your doctor. In case of an emergency, call 911 or present at the emergency department of your local hospital.

What is the Difference Between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression?

As opposed to a mood disorder such as depression, SAD is considered a subset of depressive disorders where greater or lesser symptoms of depression occur from seasonal patterns. In other words, SAD symptoms are specifically attributed to a timeline of depression that is present primarily during the winter months and generally subsides in spring or summer.

Typically, doctors will diagnose a patient by noting the same pattern of symptoms occurring for two or more years, where symptoms are worse at specific times of the year. Though people with SAD will not necessarily experience the full array of symptoms, they can still experience significant changes in mood and behaviour.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosed?

These days, it can be relatively easy to self-diagnose with the wealth of information available online; however, it is always best to see a doctor or mental health professional if you suspect you have SAD.

When meeting with your doctor, you will likely answer a questionnaire concerning your family history, mood and thoughts. To diagnose SAD, your doctor will need to track any pattern of depressive episodes and tie it to specific seasons.

What Are the Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The onset of SAD often occurs during the early months of autumn and can last throughout winter. While there is no known specific cause of SAD, it can be generally attributed to a few factors such as lack of sunlight, a drop in serotonin due to shorter daylight hours and irregular melatonin levels, which is essential to regulate sleep and mood.

People with SAD can also produce higher melatonin levels, which is the hormone responsible for the ‘circadian rhythm’ or sleep-wake cycle. Having too much melatonin results in excessive sleepiness and can exacerbate mood changes.

What Are the Risk Factors of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While both men and women are at risk of SAD during the winter months, it is most common among women and young people. The risk of SAD decreases with age. Those with a family history of depression or bipolar are at most risk, as any existing symptoms can worsen considerably.

People living further from the equator are also at a higher risk of experiencing SAD due to the lack of sunlight during winter. A deficiency in vitamin D is associated with SAD, which can further hinder already low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

What is the Best Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While SAD can be a severe and debilitating form of depression, today’s treatment is quite advance. The primary method of treating SAD is psychotherapy, ‘talk therapy’ or counselling. With the assistance of a licensed mental health professional, those experiencing SAD can receive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Clients are taught to notice their negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.

It should be noted this is much easier said than done, CBT and counselling requires a level of effort from the person receiving the counselling. However, the result is well worth the work considering the first line of treatment for most mood and anxiety disorders is counselling . Most people require multiple sessions to help identify negative thought patterns and replace them with more helpful ones. Others may benefit from group therapy sessions where they can share their own and learn from others’ experiences.

A long-term study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) showed that patients with SAD had positive results from CBT, which seemed to last longer over time . Psychotherapy that lasted beyond the duration of SAD was shown to be the most effective longer-term to help prevent the annual recurrence of SAD.

What Else Helps Those Suffering From Seasonal Affective Disorder?

In addition to counselling, other modes of treatment can be used to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. This includes the prescription of antidepressants, the use of regular light therapy, moderate exercise and engaging in outdoor activities during daylight hours.

In light therapy, patients are exposed to light about 20 times brighter than the average light for extended periods. Treatment generally starts with 10-15 minutes and increases to 20-40 minutes per day. Some people respond well to light therapy; however, it is worth noting that lamps and lightboxes can be expensive and are not a replacement for natural sunlight.

Lifestyle changes such as increasing exercise and eating a healthy balanced diet can help when done in combination with counselling, light therapy and, in some cases, medication. Be sure to talk openly with your doctor or therapist about how you feel to receive prompt treatment.

Final Thoughts on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Despite being difficult to recognize, seasonal affective disorder can be diagnosed and treated very effectively. Thankfully, health care professionals are more aware of mental health issues than they were in the past, making it easier for people to access prompt care for SAD.

Whether you or a loved one are experiencing SAD symptoms ranging from mild to severe, be sure to see a doctor or talk to a trained mental health professional. By following the recommendations in this article, those experiencing SAD can pave the road to recovery and soon have a better and brighter outlook on life.

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