Do I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression related to and triggered by the changing of the seasons. In most cases, SAD onsets around the same time each year, usually beginning in the fall and ending once the days grow longer in the spring.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder that occurs in the wintertime will often cause a drop in your energy level, leaving you feeling tired and your limbs feeling heavy. You’re likely to oversleep, and you may feel irritable and more sensitive than usual to rejection and criticism. You may experience a change in your appetite and find yourself reaching for more high-carb foods than you normally consume.

Most importantly, you may feel extremely depressed. Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, suicidal thoughts and a loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy may leave you feeling like the sun will never shine again.

When SAD occurs in the spring or summer, which is far less common, it may cause insomnia, depression, anxiety and a reduced appetite.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The cause of seasonal affective disorder isn’t entirely known, but researchers believe it has to do with the reduction of sunlight during the fall and winter months. This change in light levels can disrupt your circadian rhythms and cause a drop in the brain chemical serotonin and the hormone melatonin. Serotonin is associated with the regulation of mood, and melatonin affects sleep patterns and also plays a role in mood regulation. Reduced levels of these chemicals can lead to depression and other symptoms of SAD.

From SAD to Happy: Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Light therapy is one of the most effective treatments for SAD. Light therapy is administered by way of a light therapy box that mimics natural sunlight. Used for around 30 minutes each morning, the box helps to reset your circadian rhythms and restore normal melatonin and serotonin levels.

Psychotherapy is also effective for treating SAD by helping you identify negative thoughts and emotions that affect your mood and replace them with healthier ways of thinking. Therapy also helps you develop skills and strategies for coping with the symptoms of SAD.

In some cases, medications are used to treat seasonal affective disorder. These may include melatonin in mild cases or antidepressants in more severe cases.

Tips for Relieving Seasonal Affective Disorder

A few simple lifestyle changes can help you cope with symptoms of SAD and even reduce their intensity.

  • Eat a nutritious diet and get plenty of sleep to help alleviate symptoms of depression.
  • Exercise regularly to combat stress and trigger the release of feel-good brain chemicals.
  • Spend as much time as possible in the sunlight every day—even if that means sitting next to a window at work—to help reset your circadian rhythms and reduce feelings of depression.
  • Stay as socially active as possible during the winter months to prevent feelings of isolation, which can worsen symptoms.
  • Avoid the excessive use of drugs or alcohol, which may seem to alleviate symptoms initially but almost always worsen them and increase your risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Most importantly, if you think you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, talk to a mental health professional about your symptoms. Help is available, and it can vastly improve your sense of well-being during the colder, darker months of the year.