Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is characterized by episodes of depression that occur during certain seasons. It begins and ends around the same time each year. The most common type of SAD starts in the fall and continues through winter. Symptoms resolve with the onset of spring. This article will focus on the more common fall/winter type of SAD. There is also a Spring/Summer type of SAD that is less common and presents with slight differences in symptoms.

What is the Cause of SAD?

The suspected cause of SAD is the shorter days that come with the fall and winter months, the resulting decrease in sunlight, and the impacts these have on our bodies.

These impacts include:

  • A disruption to the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm)
  • An increase in the body’s level of melatonin, a sleep related hormone the body produces when it’s dark
  • A drop in serotonin levels, our body’s natural mood stabilizer, which could also trigger depression

Prevalence and Risk Factors of SAD

SAD is thought to effect 0.5—3 % of the general population

Risk factors include:

  • Depression – people with a pre-existing depressive mood disorders are at greater risk of developing SAD
  • Gender – SAD is more common in women
  • Family history – people with SAD are more likely to have blood relatives with SAD
  • Age – SAD is rare in people under 20, and most common in early adulthood-middle age
  • Latitude – SAD is more common in people who live further from the equator

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

Signs and symptoms of SAD are the same as those experienced with other forms of Depression.

These include:

  • Changes in weight (often increase).
  • Changes in sleep (often more tired).
  • Changes in appetite (often increased, with carb and sweet cravings).
  • Lack of energy and motivation.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and social withdrawal.
  • Difficulty concentrating and confusion.
  • Moving and speaking slower than usual.
  • Restlessness, agitation, and irritability.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.
  • Feelings of guilt, and low self-worth.

Help Available

Psychotherapy – can help identify and change negative views you may have of yourself, others, the future and the world and behaviours associated with these that are prevalent when depression hits. It can also help you identify things that cause you stress and learn healthy ways to cope with and manage them.

Antidepressants – prescription medications that help restore the balance of brain chemicals that are associated with mood. Some people benefit from this form of treatment, especially if their symptoms are severe.

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Self-Management of SAD

There are things that you can do on your own to help manage the signs and symptoms of SAD, and the impacts they have on your life.

These include:

Exercise – aim for being active 30 minutes a day, but remember that doing more today, than you did yesterday will also help. Be realistic in your exercise goals.

Sunlight – increase your daily exposure of sunlight. Despite the change in weather, try to spend some time outside daily. Alternately, try making your indoor environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim trees blocking the light from coming in, and sit near windows.

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Sleep Hygiene

Follow good, healthy sleep habits including:

  • Maintain a sleep routine with the same sleep and wake times daily.
  • Don’t try to force sleep. If you’re not able to sleep, get up for a little while and try again later.
  • Enjoy caffeine in the morning only.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking as they both disrupt quality sleep.
  • Keep your sleep area dark, cool, quiet, and free from distractions or reminders of stress.
  • Solve problems before bed if possible.
  • Avoid doing your exercise before bed.
  • Avoid using devices such as TVs, phones and tablets that give off light that activates you.

Light Therapy (SAD Lamp) – Exposure to a Light Therapy (SAD/UV Lamp) for specific amounts of time each day may help correct the effects of the lack of sunlight.

Break down bigger tasks into smaller, more manageable, and realistic tasks. When depressed, tasks you normally handle can seem much more overwhelming. Don’t take on too much. Do what you can as you can.

Engage with others despite the urge to withdraw. Socializing can offer support, a shoulder to cry on, a good laugh, a distraction from negative thoughts, and give a little boost to your mood.

Do things that you previously enjoyed. These are things that will generally make you feel better once you engage in them.

Do something nice for someone else. Acts of kindness increase self-esteem, empathy, and compassion. They also result in a decrease in our stress hormone cortisol, and in turn a decrease in levels of stress.

Avoid alcohol and drugs which have a depressive effect and are unhealthy coping mechanisms. Drugs and alcohol may offer short term relief from stress and mood problems, but they perpetuate problems long term and often result in new problems.

Use relaxation and coping skills regularly. These are health coping skills that will help regulate your nervous system, and cope with stress and other difficult emotions.

Work toward an attitude of gratitude. When we express and receive gratitude, the brain releases neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel good. The impact on mood is immediate; making use feel happier.

Accept the help of family and friends. Everyone goes through difficult times. It is a sign of strength to be able to recognize your needs and ask for help to meet them.