Do you find yourself sadder and feeling blue when the cold season kicks in? Not everyone may be in the best spirits this season, and you could be one of them. You could be having symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Why do you think this is happening?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression is triggered by changes in the season and happens at the same time every year.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) indicated four risk factors for SAD: age, sex, location or distance from the equator, and history of having depression or any mood disorders.

The mild case of seasonal affective disorder is the winter blues. Feeling the winter blues or feeling down during the winter months is normal.

On the other hand, SAD is the severe kind. It is a depression that can affect how you do things, how you think, and how you may feel. The good thing about seasonal affective disorder is that it is a treatable case of mental disorder.

A rare case of seasonal affective disorder is summer depression. Summer depression occurs during hot months, which usually starts in late spring and ends during the fall season.

Causes

Lack of sunlight exposure may trigger SAD if you are prone to it. The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is still unverified, but researchers have come up with possible theories, such as:

Changes in the Biological Clock

Your biological clock is greatly determined by the light and dark cycles of the sun. Your body clock uses light and dark signals to tell your body when to be active and prepare for sleep.

This internal clock is responsible for mood, hormonal, and sleep regulation. When you get less sun exposure, changes happen to your body clock, like difficulties with  mood regulation.

Imbalance in Brain Chemicals

If you are at risk for seasonal affective disorder, you have less serotonin activity in your system. Serotonin is the hormone responsible for stabilizing your mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.

Sunlight aids in the regulation of serotonin; that’s why you may feel much worse during wintertime. You may experience mood changes if your serotonin level continues to fall.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Sunlight triggers your body to produce vitamin D. You are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency during wintertime because of less sun exposure. This is why a vitamin D deficit can affect your mood negatively.

Higher Melatonin Level

Commonly known as the “sleep hormone,” melatonin regulates your body clock and synchronizes your sleep-wake cycle. If you are less exposed to sunlight, your body may produce more melatonin, causing you to feel sleepy during the winter months.

Negative Thoughts

If you have SAD, you are more prone to have stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts about wintertime. These, in turn, may aggravate your hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalance further.

SAD Symptoms

The signs of seasonal affective disorder may look like other mental health conditions. You may have SAD if you have the following symptoms:

  • Sadness and anxiety
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Irritability and difficulties concentrating
  • Social withdrawal and loss of interest in hobbies
  • Limbs feel heavy
  • Sleeping more
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Weight gain and cravings for carbohydrate-rich food
  • Suicidal thoughts

You may have summer depression if you experience the following:

  • Restlessness, anxiety,  and agitation
  • Weight loss and poor appetite
  • Sleeping problems
  • Showing violent behavior

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Common?

SAD often manifests in young adults (18–30 years old), affecting women more than men. Seventy-five percent of women are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Who Are at Risk for Developing SAD?

Seasonal affective disorder doesn’t only affect young adults and women. Anyone with the following conditions can be at risk for developing SAD:

  • Other mood disorders like bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder
  • Mental health disorders run in the family like depression and  schizophrenia
  • Preference for cloudy or cold places that are located at the far north from the equator

You may also be battling other mental conditions besides SAD if you have seasonal affective disorder. You can be experiencing any of the following disorders:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorder
  • Panic disorder

Diagnosis of SAD

You have to consult a mental health professional who will diagnose and evaluate you properly for seasonal affective disorder. You may be asked to see a psychologist or psychiatrist or psychologist who will look into your symptoms’ patterns and determine whether or not you have SAD or any mood disorder.

Your healthcare provider may suggest that you undergo medical tests, such as a physical exam, blood tests, and body scans to rule out other medical conditions. Your healthcare provider may also use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a publication of the American Psychiatric Association.

Criteria

These are the criteria that your healthcare provider may look into to assess if you have SAD:

  • You have symptoms of major depression.
  • You have had recurring depressive episodes during the cold season for at least two years.
  • These depressive episodes happen very frequently during a specific season than the other seasons.

Prevention of SAD

The following are the recommended steps on how to avoid the recurrence of SAD:

  • Use a lightbox and undergo light therapy at the start of the fall season before your symptoms start.
  • Enjoy the outdoors and get enough natural light every day.
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet every day to give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly.
  • Do your favorite exercise at least 30 minutes a day at least three times a week.
  • Be with your friends and loved ones and spend quality time with them
  • Join a support group that can make you feel better. You may feel inspired to get better by being with people who are going through the same condition as you.
  • You can also try volunteering during this season. This will take your mind off your negative feelings and help you feel better about yourself.
  • Find ways to deal with your stress during this time of the year. If you are stressed about work or your relationships, you can prepare ahead of time on how you can avoid being in these situations or minimize their impact on you.
  • You should also consider practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation daily to manage your stress and negative emotions.
  • Look for a mental health practitioner who can help you with your symptoms and provide you with the right treatment for SAD.
  • Your mental health provider may require you to take medication to prevent SAD, which you can take before the winter months.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

To treat seasonal affective disorder, you and your healthcare provider will go through all the possible treatment options, which could include more than one treatment.

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy or talk therapy, is an effective treatment for SAD. Researchers have seen CBT to have a long-term effect than any other treatment for SAD.

CBT is used to identify and change your negative thoughts or behaviors—which make you feel worse—into positive ones. Through CBT, you will be introduced to ways to reduce avoidance behavior and schedule your activities as healthy ways to cope with SAD. CBT will also help you manage stress properly.

2. Antidepressant Medication

Your healthcare provider may prescribe that you take antidepressant medicines along with therapy.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a class of medication that can treat SAD and improve your overall mood. Bupropion is another approved medication by the FDA that can prevent SAD symptoms when taken daily from the fall until early spring.

3. Enjoying the Outdoors

Get out more to have enough sunlight exposure that you need daily. Getting enough sunlight may improve the symptoms that you are experiencing. You can also arrange your furniture at home or work to allow more sunlight to enter your home or office.

4. Getting Enough Vitamin D

Aside from the natural vitamin D you get from sun exposure, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take vitamin D supplements to help with your symptoms.

Vitamin D is naturally present in certain whole foods, such as salmon, eggs, mushrooms, chia seeds, flax seeds, and soybean. It is highly recommended that you also consume the right serving of fruits and vegetables daily.

5. Using Mind-Body Techniques

You can cope with SAD by trying these techniques: meditation, guided imagery, music or art therapy, and yoga.

6. Phototherapy

In phototherapy or light therapy, a special lamp is used to provide natural light exposure and treat winter SAD. Light therapy is highly recommended by mental health experts and is regarded as one of the first-line treatments for SAD.

How Does Light Therapy Work?

In light therapy, white fluorescent light tubes are used. These tubes are covered in plastic screens to block UV rays.

Experts think that morning light therapy is better, as this prevents the possibility of you developing insomnia. It is best to use the SAD lamp daily throughout the wintertime.

Light therapy is usually safe and can be well-tolerated. But, if you have the following conditions, light therapy may not be advised for you:

  • You have diabetes or retinopathies. Light therapy is not possible if you have diabetes or a retina condition. Exposing yourself to light therapy may potentially damage your retina.
  • You are taking certain medications that may increase photosensitivity. You are discouraged from undergoing light therapy if you are taking antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs that can make you more sensitive to light.
  • You have bipolar disorder. If you have bipolar disorder, you need medical supervision when using bright light therapy. Hypomania or mania, or experiencing uncontrollable boosts in mood and energy levels, can be triggered by bright light therapy.

The effectiveness of using the SAD lamp may differ for each person. You may see an improvement in your symptoms as early as 2–4 days. For some, it may take 2 weeks to see the full benefits.

Different Ways of Using Light Therapy

1. Using a Light Box

The amount of light emitted from the lightbox is controlled, and the harmful UV rays are filtered out. The light coming from the lightbox gives ten times the intensity given off by normal house lighting. You just need to situate yourself 12 inches away from the lightbox for 15–30 minutes daily.

Make sure that you don’t stare straight into the lightbox. Just let the light shine. You can even do some work if you like.

A lightbox can be purchased without a prescription, so you have to make sure that you buy the one designed to treat SAD. Don’t buy a lightbox used for skin treatment, as the unfiltered UV rays may harm your retina.

It is also important that your healthcare provider monitors you to maximize the benefits of the lightbox.

2. Using a Dawn Simulator

The dawn simulator is used to simulate the rising sun every morning when you wake up. This device steadily increases the amount of light in your room just like how natural sunlight does it for around 30–40 minutes. The dawn simulator allows you to experience waking up to a sunny morning during wintertime.

Side Effects of Light Therapy

  • Fatigue and headaches
  • Eyestrain
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability

Are the Treatments Effective?

Treatments for seasonal depression are available. If you are diagnosed properly and given the right treatment method, you will feel relief from your symptoms. You can still experience SAD every year, but you will at least be able to prevent having severe symptoms.

How Can a Mental Health Professional Give You the Best Care?

If you can plan ahead and regularly get in touch with your healthcare provider, you will be able to manage your symptoms and feel better in no time. Your healthcare provider can provide you the following information:

  • The best treatment for your case
  • How you can prevent experiencing depressive episodes
  • Effectiveness of light therapy
  • If you can take antidepressant drugs
  • When to start your treatment and for how long
  • Restrictions on food or drinks

How Can You Care for Yourself If You Have SAD?

You can manage seasonal affective disorder by following some guidelines. You have to stick to your treatment plan if you want to feel better. Ensure that you keep in touch with your healthcare provider and follow the instructions regarding your medication and SAD lamp usage.

You should ask your mental health provider if you can start your treatment before the winter months. This way, you can prevent the symptoms from happening.

Make sure that you get enough sleep and rest. You should eat healthy and balanced meals daily. You can also stay active and exercise regularly to relieve SAD symptoms.

You should not feel sad and isolate yourself, as this will only make your symptoms worse. The cold season may discourage you from socializing, but try to make an effort to reach out to your family and friends.

If you feel down, it would also be good for you to go on a vacation in warm locations if you have winter SAD. If you have summer SAD, you can choose a cooler destination for a vacation.

As much as possible, avoid drinking alcoholic drinks and taking drugs, as these can make your symptoms worse or negatively interact with SAD medication.

Image by rebcenter-moscow from Wikimedia

Final Thoughts

The therapists in Ohio understand how difficult it is for you to manage SAD symptoms and how hard you try to be happy during this gloomy season.

With the help of therapists at Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC), you can better understand why you developed seasonal depression, how you can prevent it yearly, and how you can be treated for it. There is no reason for you to be sad and depressed, as seasonal depression is a preventable and treatable condition.

Don’t let the cold season get the best of you. It may be dark and gloomy outside, but you can do something to bring some sunshine into your life. Counseling Now is here to help you and bring you hope.

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