The Facts Behind Seasonal Affective Disorder: What Causes It and What You Can Do

As soon as the temperatures begin to drop and the days start getting a little shorter, it’s not uncommon to feel a tinge of sadness. After all, the onset of wintertime marks a separation from the hot, lazy days of summer and the crisp, exciting weeks of autumn. In both of those seasons, there is a buzz of energy in the air. Vacations are plentiful and relaxation is top of mind when it’s warm out. Then, as we usher in fall, school begins again, there are plenty of fun festivals to visit on the weekend and everyone’s excited about bringing their boots and warm jackets out of storage.

Then, the leaves turn from colorful to gray and the lush landscape is suddenly bleak. It’s dark outside when we leave our home to go to work in the morning, and it’s dark as soon as we get in the car to head home. Light meals of fresh fruits and garden veggies that defined the earlier months are replaced by comforting stews as we seek to warm our chilled bones. With all of this occurring, you may feel a little down about the changing of the seasons and the different lifestyle this transition brings.

Yet, for some people, the change in season brings about more than just a little disappointment. They might suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This is a form of depression and while it’s most common during the winter months, it can actually occur at any time of the year. Today, we’re diving into this issue to learn more about its root causes and how sufferers can find the treatment they need.

The Correlation Between SAD and Winter

Why is SAD most commonly associated with the winter? Most experts agree that the end of daylight savings time can be a major trigger. As we “fall back,” we essentially gain an extra hour, but it’s an hour of darkness. While it used to get dark around 7:00, it’s suddenly pitch black at 6:00 and our days therefore feel shortened.

There’s no denying the science behind the fact that sunshine makes us happy. Those rays are filled with mood and energy-building goodness that instantly invigorates us. With less exposure to the sun, we’re more apt to fall prey to depression as our brain chemistry adjusts. Yet, there are some pros that come from daylight savings time along with the cons. You can learn more about both sides of the issue here.

SAD vs. the Winter Blues: Which is It?

Are you wondering whether or not you might have SAD? While only a licensed healthcare professional can provide a definite diagnosis, there are signs that what you’re feeling is more than just the wintertime blues.

Start by considering how your emotions affect your ability to honestly function. It’s one thing to go to work and go through the motions of being productive. In fact, you might get everything done and excel in your position, all while suffering mentally from a sinking feeling you can’t put your finger on. Yet, if you’re only halfheartedly performing the effort, it’s only a matter of time before the facade catches up with you. If this is the case, SAD could be to blame.

Conversely, you might only feel a little down when the sun begins to set. Maybe you miss playing outside in the late evening or you’d like a little more light to work longer into the night. Other than that though, you’re in a generally good mood and aren’t too shaken by the change in temperature and sunlight.

Overall, around 4% to 6% of the population suffers from true winter depression. Roughly 15% have a mild form of SAD. Industry research shows that it’s also more common in women than it is in men, and your chances of getting it increase as you age.

Common Symptoms of SAD

Those who suffer from winter depression or mild forms of SAD will often exhibit physical symptoms that point to their diagnosis. These include but are not limited to:

  • Appetite changes, craving starchy comfort foods more than usual
  • Low energy levels
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiousness and irritability
  • An urge to “hibernate” and avoid social situations
  • Increased fatigue
  • Difficulty with concentration

These symptoms also follow summertime SAD, though poor appetite, insomnia and weight loss are the most common signs during this time. Summertime SAD is also associated with a change in sunlight levels.

Finding Treatments for SAD and Reclaiming Your Life

If you or someone you know suffers from SAD, there are treatment solutions that can help. A primary one is light therapy, as this depression is often catalyzed by too much or too little sunlight. This is performed by wearing a special light cap on your head, which will mimic those rays you’re missing. You’ll wear the cap for around 30 minutes a day, with minimal side effects including headache and fatigue. Keep in mind that while it might be tempting to hop in the tanning bed to get that artificial sunlight, this isn’t a recommended treatment approach. These light sources feature harmful UV rays that ultimately do more harm than good.

Your doctor may also recommend that you begin a medication regimen or come in for behavioral therapy sessions. The ideal approach for you will depend on your specific symptoms, end goals and timeframe.

The good news is that there is help available. You don’t have to suffer through the entire winter just waiting for the springtime to arrive. Seek the help you need today and reclaim these cold-weather months as an enjoyable time for you and your loved ones.