What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Fall and winter are the seasons many people look forward to all year. This time is usually filled with joy and celebration between the holiday festivities, time with family and friends, and a break from the scorching summer heat. However, when the days get shorter, the weather gets colder, and the sky gets darker, some peoples’ moods change as the year ends.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a kind of depression that begins around October and continues through February or March (depending on the weather). Like other types of depression, SAD is suspected to be the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain due to less exposure to daylight, which throws off your circadian rhythms – the changes that happen in your body during a 24-hour cycle.

The signs of SAD mimic those of other types of depression, so it can be difficult to distinguish it from other types without the help of a professional. It’s crucial to recognize the timeline of your symptoms and address them promptly to avoid falling too far into the winter blues.

What are the most common symptoms of SAD?

Here are some of the most common symptoms to watch out for if you think you might have seasonal depression.

With these symptoms, it’s also important to differentiate between clinically significant seasonal depression and feeling depressed. Believe it or not, there’s a big difference. It’s pretty normal to experience a slight change in mood and increased fatigue during the winter, but that’s mostly due to how our bodies change with the seasons. The time for a diagnosis comes when the symptoms intensify, interfering with your ability to function and cope with natural stressors.

What is the best treatment for SAD?

January is typically when symptoms are at their peak, so that’s when people with SAD experience the most difficulty with their mental health. However, it’s not something that lasts forever. Once the weather starts to warm up and the days get longer, you’ll probably notice a significant improvement in your symptoms. You also might not have SAD symptoms every year. That’s why keeping a close eye on your symptoms is important so you know when something changes. Keeping track of your feelings in a journal or notebook is a great way to do this.

So if SAD doesn’t last all year and may not appear annually, how do you treat it? Is it different than “normal” depression? Light therapy is a technique that uses artificial sunlight to help counteract the side effects of less daylight. You can purchase and use lights at home, or some specialized clinics offer light therapy sessions.

But while there’s not one treatment that’s better than another, cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy are two types of psychotherapy that are beneficial to working through symptoms of seasonal depression. Medication is a way to stabilize symptoms and make it easier to be present in therapy, helping you reach your goals. Working with a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), like the ones on staff at Balance Psychiatric Services, to establish a treatment plan for medication management can take you from SAD to satisfied this winter. Contact us to schedule an intake appointment.