Winter is a festive time of year. With peppermint-flavored treats, cozy decor, and snow-filled activities, it’s a time often rife with nostalgia and fond memories.
Yet winter is a notoriously difficult time of year, too, especially if you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD is a type of depression that comes around every year, typically during the fall or winter months. (For some people, it can occur in the summer). It is characterized by feelings of sadness or loss of interest or pleasure in activities.
SAD is a real, diagnosable mental health condition that affects 5% of adults in the U.S. It is also called major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.
Let's take a look at five things you should know about this mental health condition.
1. We don’t know exactly what causes SAD.
SAD is a clinical diagnosis that affects millions of adults and often lasts around 40 percent of the year.
People living with SAD experience symptoms of depression like perpetual fatigue, appetite change, difficulty concentrating, and losing interest in previous hobbies. The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but it’s generally linked to a lack of sunlight as days get shorter and nights longer.
Your body’s internal clock and hormone (serotonin and melatonin) levels can all be affected by sunlight. So if you get moody when the clouds roll in, you’re not just being dramatic — there’s science behind those emotions.
2. Vitamin D can help.
Many people with SAD have insufficient or deficient levels of Vitamin D.
Usually, symptoms of SAD begin to show in early adulthood, around ages 18-30. SAD is four times more likely to affect women, and those living farthest north from the equator (and the least likely to synthesize Vitamin D naturally) are most likely to report symptoms.
Your brain depends on Vitamin D, most commonly produced via sunlight, to help regulate its sleep-wake rhythm. Limited exposure to sunshine in the fall and winter months can result in Vitamin D deficiency and be linked to SAD. Incorporating more Vitamin D into your routine, whether through outdoor activities or a supplement may help your symptoms.
3. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not the same as the holiday blues.
Many people experience heightened stress, exhaustion, anxiety, and even sadness around the holidays. This is known as “the holiday blues” or “winter blues”. The holiday blues can start prior to Thanksgiving and last until after the New Year. Similarly, some people also experience the winter blues and develop symptoms similar to depression as the days get shorter.
There’s a difference, however, between experiencing fleeting mood shifts during the holidays and winter months and experiencing SAD.
SAD is severe, persistent depression that comes and goes with the seasons and can last several months. The holiday blues and winter blues, however, are not medical conditions and only occur situationally. Moreover, people with the holiday and winter blues don’t typically experience the more severe physical and physiological changes and symptoms that occur with SAD.
4. Craving carbohydrates is a distinct symptom.
During the holiday season, many of us turn to comfort foods. Pies, cookies, and treats seem to multiply. But if you find yourself craving an unusual amount of carbs, it might be SAD. One of the distinct symptoms of SAD is carbohydrate cravings that can lead to overeating and weight gain.
SAD can also cause other symptoms such as feelings of sadness, lack of interest in hobbies or activities, trouble sleeping, lower energy, and trouble concentrating. Sometimes, feelings of sadness or worthlessness may lead to thoughts of death or suicide. It’s important to seek medical attention if you observe any changes to your mental or physical health during the winter months.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, call 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also find free resources here.
5. Treatment can help you get back on track.
When depression hits, your world can become dark and lonely. Talking with a therapist can help you get to the source of your depression and find ways to manage it.
One of the main types of therapy offered to treat SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The main goal of this psychotherapy is to help you get over unhelpful thinking patterns, while also promoting purposeful and enjoyable activity.
Light therapy, or phototherapy, is another type of treatment where sunlight is replicated with artificial light. Using a light therapy lamp helps make up for the lack of sunlight you get when you’re hit with SAD. Over time, it has been documented to help relieve symptoms of SAD and potentially keep depression at bay.
Depending on your causes and symptoms, feeling better might mean trying a combination of at-home self-treatments and seeking professional help. If symptoms are severe enough, your doctor or psychiatric provider might prescribe you medication, such as an antidepressant.
Although living a healthy lifestyle, such as exercising more frequently, increasing exposure to sunlight, and maintaining a healthy diet may alleviate some symptoms, seeking professional help is the best course of action for making sure that you can successfully treat your current episode of depression (or SAD) and prevent future ones.
If you suspect you might be experiencing signs of SAD, talk to your doctor or mental health professional for an official diagnosis before starting any treatment options. If you’re looking to connect with a therapist, SonderMind can help.