Why so SAD?

It’s that time of year again, where the days are short and the nights are so very long. For some people, this is okay, while for others, this is a terrible time of year. This is not only because of the holidays, which may be stressful or painful to some, but because of a disorder called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a depressive disorder that is catalyzed by seasonal changes. Unlike Major Depressive Disorder, or other depressive disorders, SAD tends to leave those affected to face depression for 4-5 months. While SAD is more common in the winter months, it can appear in people during the summer months, too. SAD features many of the same symptoms of other depressive disorders, such as sadness, numbness, or irritability, and a lack of energy and motivation. Seasonal Affective Disorder, while stereotypically believed to be nothing more than the ‘winter blues’, can be serious. 

SAD affects millions of people world-wide. Because of the prevalence of winter-pattern SAD, people who live closer to the poles tend to experience it more than the rest of the population. (This is because, as you get closer to the poles, the days are even shorter and the nights even longer, which falls in winter near the northern pole and in summer near the southern pole). SAD tends to occur more frequently in young people in comparison to older people, and women more than men. People who have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder tend to be especially susceptible to SAD.

So why do the seasons tend to affect our moods? Well, there are a few reasons. With winter-pattern SAD, the shortening of daylight may affect your circadian rhythm, which is regulated by both serotonin and melatonin. When these chemicals fall out of balance, it can lead to depression. A lack of Vitamin D is also said to exacerbate symptoms. In summer-pattern SAD, when the nights become shorter it can lead to sleep disruptions, which in turn affect your circadian rhythm.

Luckily, SAD can be managed. Common treatments for SAD include light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressants, and Vitamin D supplements. Light therapy and Vitamin D are specifically used to target winter-pattern SAD, while psychotherapy and antidepressants can be used to treat either summer or winter-pattern SAD. 

If you have any of the symptoms listened below, and are worried you might have SAD, please consult your doctor or therapist:

  • Sad, anxious, or numb mood most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 2 weeks
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slowed down
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Changes in sleep or appetite or unplanned weight changes
  • Physical aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not have a clear physical cause and do not go away with treatment
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts

For winter-pattern SAD, additional symptoms can include:

  • Oversleeping 
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates, leading to weight gain
  • Social withdrawal

For summer-pattern SAD, additional symptoms can include:

  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Violent or aggressive behavior

It’s not uncommon for many people to notice some energy or mood differences based on the seasons.  But if you have symptoms that are interfering with school, work, or relationships, or symptoms so strong they feel hard to cope with, the good news is you may have a treatable condition.  Please consider reaching out to a trusted medical or mental health professional, and see if treatment for SAD might help. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Seasonal affective disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder 

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (n.d.). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651 

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