Every fall around the months of September and October, thousands of Americans begin showing signs of constant agitation and anxiety, irritability, crying spells, overeating, fatigue, lowered sex drive, difficulty sleeping, and depression. Their energy begins to drop noticeably, their arms or legs feel heavier, and they have such intense feelings of hopelessness that it leads some to begin thinking about suicide. They may even begin to become hypersensitive to social rejection, that is, if they’re not avoiding social situations altogether. All of these symptoms generally continue for six long months. Six. Long. Months.
Six long months until spring arrives and the sun begins to shine more. Six long months until Daylight Savings Time, when the days finally start lasting longer. Six long months until as many as six out of every 100 people in the United States begin to feel some sense of normalcy again. Six long months of struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
Most of us tend to experience some physiological and emotional changes when the weather hits. We generally eat more, sleep more, and even experience more up and downs during the shorter days. We are often disappointed that the summer has ended and that the weather is colder. But those who suffer from SAD experience all of these things and much more at a level of intensity that is equivalent to those who suffer from clinical depression (Major Depressive Disorder).
Who Suffers with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Although we know that as many as six out of every 100 people in the U.S. struggle with SAD, it is estimated that there’s a probable 10-20% who experience a milder form. The diagnosis affects both men and women similarly, but it is significantly more prevalent in women. In fact, 80% of SAD sufferers are women ages 18-45. And we must remember that none of these numbers even include the number of people that suffer in silence, those who know that something is “off,” but they fail to seek treatment for one reason or another.
As is true worldwide, Seasonal Affective Disorder is significantly more prevalent in Northern regions than in regions closer to the equator, meaning that those who live farther from the equator are more likely to develop SAD. You can see this if you compare SAD rates in Fairbanks Alaska, in which 9.2% of the population suffers from the illness, and Sarasota, Florida, where 1.4% of the population is affected. The change in latitude is a common cause of light deprivation.
SAD also has an inherent vulnerability, as it tends to run in families. Most patients with the illness have at least one close relative with a history of depression (often SAD). The disease also tends to first appear in one’s 20s, and its symptoms then generally return year after year once the weather begins turning colder.
What Causes SAD?
The jury’s still out on exactly what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder. Its likeliest cause may be attributed to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year. This lack of sunlight affects how serotonin and melatonin work in our brains, affecting mood, sleep, and appetite. It is also thought that stressful events may contribute to feelings of depression in the winter. Stress tends to be harder to deal with in the winter for a variety of reasons, including the season’s holidays, weather, etc.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms of SAD are very much similar to those experienced by those who suffer with Major Depressive Disorder, or clinical depression. To be classified as Seasonal Affective Disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) states that there is evidence of “a regular temporal relationship between the onset of major depressive episodes in major depressive disorder and a particular time of the year.” Two major depressive episodes that show this relationship must occur within the last two years.
As with a clinical diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, SAD must meet five or more of the following symptoms that have been present during the same 2-week time period and represent a change from previous functioning. At least one symptom must be either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.
- Depressed mood most of the day (In children and adolescents, this may be irritable mood)
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day
- Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide
The symptoms must cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, and the episode cannot be attributed to the physiological effects of a substance or to another medical condition (source: “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition”).
Treatments for SAD
There are different noted treatments to help people suffering with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Probably the most popular treatment and piece of advice from doctors and mental health providers is to get some light, whether it be in the form of natural sunlight or usage of a “SAD lamp,” light therapy appears to be the treatment of choice for SAD.
If able, the most affordable and desired choice of the two would be to get out in the sunlight. Even though it’s cold outside, the sunlight is extremely beneficial to those affected. It is recommended that you get out in the morning sunlight if possible, but if you have a job like so many where the sun still hasn’t come up by the time you leave for work in the morning, the next best thing is the noon sunlight. Try taking a lunch break outdoors and find a sunny spot.
If you’re unable to soak in the natural sunlight, or if you’re not able to get enough sun, SAD lamps may be something to look into. SAD lamps, or light therapy, stimulate natural daylight and is highly recommended to sufferers of SAD. Patients generally begin with 30-45 minutes of daily treatment in front of the special bright lights and then gradually reduce this duration on a weekly basis. The intensity of light is equivalent to being about the same that you might see when looking out the window on a sunny day. People have reported great relief from this type of treatment.
Other treatments that one might find beneficial to help alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include the following:
- Antidepressants. – Talk to your physician about your symptoms, and see if taking an antidepressant may benefit you.
- Exercise. – Getting your heart rate up and breaking a sweat increases serotonin and endorphin levels.
- Cut back on stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and carbohydrates. – These can lead to mood swings that can worsen your depression.
- Eat foods containing tryptophan. – Many who suffer from SAD experience reduced levels of serotonin, the brain’s neurotransmitter. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor of serotonin; eating foods that contain this may increase your body’s production of serotonin and help you feel better.
- Check your diet. – Make sure your diet is healthy, nutritious, and balanced.
- Fill your home with light. – Open up those blinds!
- Wear warm colors and surround yourself by them too. – The colors yellow, orange, and red can stimulate your mood greatly.
- Laugh. – Watch your favorite television show or a funny movie. Let yourself laugh out loud. Laughter stimulates endorphins much like exercise.
If you believe you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or clinical depression, it’s important that you get treatment. Don’t suffer in silence! Contact your physician and get evaluated. Visit a qualified mental health provider with experience in treating depressive disorders. There’s help out there.
How to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Winter Blues
10+ Tips to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
10 Home Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
The Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder: Dangers of Severe Depression
I Spend Half the Year Hating Myself and Wanting to Die: How SAD Affects Women
“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition” (American Psychiatric Association)