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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

As winter comes and the year wanes, many people shift into a time of greater rest. Indoor activities, quiet nights at home, and hearty meals become the norm. For some people, this time of year can be beautiful, restful, and nourishing. However, for others, the shorter, colder days of winter can trigger a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. SAD is a form of depression that has a clear seasonal pattern. Read on to understand the symptoms and treatments for this common yet debilitating condition.

Common depression symptoms

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, SAD is labeled as Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern. So, it makes sense that symptoms of SAD mirror those of Major Depressive Disorder. General symptoms of depression include depressed mood (sadness, emptiness, hopelessness), loss of interest in usual activities, low energy, sluggishness, sleep disruption, changes in appetite, difficulty focusing, feelings of worthlessness, and/or thoughts of suicide. These symptoms occur consistently for at least two weeks and often last much longer.

Unique symptoms of SAD

The thing that distinguishes SAD from non-seasonal types of depression is that it occurs reliably in a seasonal pattern. For most people, this means depressive symptoms set in during the late fall and early winter, often lasting until spring. This may be connected to the reduced daylight hours that occur during winter. SAD tends to be more common in places that have dramatically shorter daylight hours in the winter. SAD also tends to come with increased desire to sleep, tiredness, and increased craving for foods, especially those rich in carbohydrates. Although less common, SAD can also occur during summer and may have symptoms like increased insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, and anxiety or agitation. In order to separate SAD from the more general major depressive disorder, a therapist would look for a seasonal pattern to the onset of depression symptoms for at least two years. The therapist would also want to rule out other causes such as being unemployed each winter or schedule changes that may explain depression symptoms.

Treatments for SAD

SAD is a treatable condition, just like depression. Therapy for seasonal affective disorder can be incredibly helpful. A therapist can help people who are experiencing SAD understand the condition, process emotions, and form a plan to care for themselves. Another type of treatment for SAD is light therapy. Lamps designed to mimic sunlight are now widely available online and are often fairly affordable. This is thought to help the brain and body regulate the neurochemical and other biological patterns that impact mood. Medications may also be prescribed for SAD.

Getting help

As a therapist, I work with clients who experience a variety of depression symptoms, including those related to seasonal affective disorder. If you are suffering from a depressed mood or other depression symptoms, please reach out to me today to discuss your options. You do not have to accept SAD, depression, or any mental health concerns as unchangeable. There are many things you can do to feel better and you do not have to navigate that process alone.

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