As the seasons change and summer fades into the crisp colors of fall, many of us find ourselves struggling with a significant dip in our moods. Difficult and draining feelings of anxiety, sadness, or even dread can creep in with the longer nights and persist throughout the winter months.
This inexplicable change can make life seem harder than it should be, especially if it comes after a summer in which mental well-being feels easy and natural. While this feeling often seems isolating and difficult to discuss with others, it is actually a widespread phenomenon and well-recognized type of depression that affects many people around the world: Seasonal Affect Disorder, or SAD.
Given that this disorder is seasonal, often affecting people at the same time each year, possessing a sound knowledge of how to anticipate and treat SAD can help those who are struggling to stave off some of the worst symptoms and allow them to reach out to others for support before things get unbearable.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of mood disorder that affects certain individuals at the change of the seasons. As with all types of depression, SAD can cause feelings of hopelessness and gloom that are difficult to shake. It is characterised by a sudden change in mood that aligns with the change of the seasons – hence the name. SAD affects about 5 percent of adults in the United States and is classified in the DSM-5 as a major depressive disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is “characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year.” For most people, SAD, occasionally referred to as the winter blues, is likely to occur at the end of the summer months as we move into autumn and winter.
Referring to SAD as the winter blues or a seasonal funk, however, detracts from the seriousness of this condition and reinforces misconceptions of SAD as less serious than proper depression. Perceptions of SAD as something that will pass with the change of the seasons can lead to the trivialization of symptoms. Far from a passing phase, SAD is a severe and medically recognized psychological and physiological condition; studies conducted in Denmark have shown that reduced retinal light input (less exposure of the eye to sunlight) has a highly significant impact on one’s happiness, self-worth, and motivation.
Symptoms of SAD:
- Fatigue and exhaustion
- Moodiness and difficulty focusing
- Overeating and weight gain
- Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
- Loss of interest in social events and hobbies
- Loss of libido
Individuals struggling with SAD may also lack focus, have difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and experience an increase in purposeless physical activity such as pacing or hand wringing. Seasonal affective disorder is more common among individuals who are already prone to or struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood-disrupting disorders.
Although it is less frequent, SAD can also occur in the summer months, beginning with the longer days of spring and carrying on until the start of autumn. According to the Mayo Clinic, summer seasonal affective disorder is likely to bring on symptoms of mania, such as trouble sleeping, poor appetite, agitation, irritability, excessive exercise, and weight loss. This is particularly true for those who struggle with mood disorders and who are generally prone to mania.
Winter SAD is often best treated with the re-introduction of daylight wherever possible, with most professionals recommending getting out into daylight as often as possible to alleviate the worst symptoms. In addition, it can be a good idea to bring some of the outside world into the house by opening the curtains, purchasing houseplants, or using a special lamp called a lightbox, which simulates natural sunlight indoors.
Getting regular exercise and eating healthily is another good way to regulate mood through the winter months. Since SAD occurs at the same time each year for most people, it could be beneficial to plan in advance and make an exercise schedule to stick to once the winter months begin. In addition, preparing healthy meals in advance to store in the freezer can remove some of the burden of cooking once SAD sets in and make it easier to eat healthily until the seasons change again.
Talk therapy is also a very beneficial tool for those struggling with seasonal affective disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and group therapy sessions are recognized for their mitigating effects on some of the more covert symptoms of SAD, such as feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or dread. In addition, there are many medications available which can help alleviate the worst symptoms of SAD – whether it be winter depression or summer mania.
One of the most important things to remember if you are experiencing SAD is that there is no shame in reaching out for help. You do not need to struggle alone, and there is support available. Speak to family and friends or a medical professional; this is the first step to ensuring that you can get the help you need.
- American Psychiatric Association. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Psychiatry.org – Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Seasonal Affective Disorder. NIMH » Seasonal Affective Disorder (nih.gov)
- Madsen, H.Ø., Dam, H., Hageman, I. (2016) High prevalence of seasonal affective disorder among persons with severe visual impairment. The British Journal of Psychiatry. January, 208(1): 55-61. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.162354.
- Mayo Clinic. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Symptoms & causes – Mayo Clinic