Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression related to changes in the seasons. SAD has a tendency to begin and end at about the same times yearly. For most people the symptoms arrive in the fall and end around the beginning of spring. However, some people have an opposite pattern with symptoms that begin in the spring or summer.
Symptoms may start out mild and become worse as the season progresses. Don’t ignore the symptoms and hope that they will go away on their own, as SAD is not just a case of the blues.
Fall and winter SAD symptoms include
- Fatigue, feeling tired, or low energy
- Trouble getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Spring and summer SAD symptoms include
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Agitation or anxiety
According to the Mayo Clinic, the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder remains unknown. Some factors which may lead to SAD include:
Your biological clock (circadian rhythm)
The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
Some risk factors may increase your risk of experiencing SAD, including:
Women are diagnosed with SAD more often than men, but men experience more severe symptoms.
Younger individuals are more likely to experience winter SAD.
Individuals who are diagnosed with SAD tend to have biological relatives with SAD or some other form of depression.
Depression or bipolar disorder
For an individual with an existing depression or bipolar disorder diagnosis, depression symptoms can worsen seasonally.
SAD is more common among people who live in higher latitudes and worsens the farther one lives from the equator. This may be caused by a decrease in sunlight during the winter and longer, sunnier days during the summer.
When to see a therapist or doctor
For the most part everyone has some days when they feel down, but if you feel down for days and just cannot seem to find the energy or motivation to do things you enjoy, it may be time to seek professional help.
It is very important to ask for help if you are experiencing insomnia or sleeping too much, overeating or not eating enough, feeling hopeless, or you are experiencing suicidal thoughts. A therapist can help you learn coping skills to manage your depression in healthy ways and if necessary they can also refer you to psychiatry to determine if you are in need of the addition of medication(s) to manage your symptoms.
The good news is that SAD is treatable and it is better to seek professional help when you are in need of it instead of trying to ride it out on your own or hoping that the symptoms will just disappear.
Patrice Cisco, LMSW, CAADC, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Advanced Addictions and Drug Counselor working at the Pine Rest Northeast Clinic. She earned both her Bachelor and Master of Social Work degrees from Grand Valley State University.