What to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder
by Lisa DiFalco
Do you feel a bit down during the short, cold days of winter? Know when the feeling is a passing mood or something more. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition that impacts the mental health and well-being of many Americans. Seasonally related depressive symptoms may have appeared earlier than the labeling of the condition itself. SAD received its clinical name only in the early ’80s.
Get a better understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD, or “winter depression,” can build slowly as days get shorter. Symptoms are similar to depression, and females appear to experience symptoms of SAD more often than men. Those with a family history have an increased likelihood of developing SAD symptoms. SAD may affect more people than initially realized, as seen in recent news.
You or someone you know may be experiencing signs of the condition and may benefit from the various tips and treatments available. A visit to a physician or mental health professional for a diagnosis is the first step in reducing symptoms of SAD. Understand more about Seasonal Affective Disorder in adults and children and treatments to support the well-being of those afflicted.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition that is seen to be a form of depression. It is directly related to seasonal changes and appears to begin and end around the same time every year. For many with the condition, symptoms appear in the fall and continue throughout the winter. According to the DSM-5, the following criteria are used to identify the condition:
- “Depression that begins during a specific season every year for at least two years.”
- “Depression that ends during a specific season every year for at least two years.”
- “No episodes of depression during the season in which… [a person will] experience a normal mood for at least two years.”
- “Many more seasons of depression than seasons without depression over the lifetime of… [an] illness.”
Affected individuals experience lulls in energy and general irritability. It is important to know that SAD in some people appears to lead to symptoms of depression during the spring or the start of summer. People who may be experiencing symptoms of SAD should know that a wide range of treatments are available to boost mood and motivation.
Fall and Winter or Spring and Summer SAD
As the majority of people who experience symptoms of SAD do so during the autumn and winter months, it will be good to start with the general symptoms displayed in this group. Winter-onset SAD symptoms include:
- Low energy or tiredness;
- Weight gain;
- Appetite changes with a craving for high-carbohydrate foods;
- Heavy feelings in the arms or legs;
- Hypersensitivity to rejection;
- Issues getting along with others; and
As for those with summer-onset SAD, its fewer symptoms include:
- Anxiety or agitation;
- Poor appetite;
- Weight loss;
- Insomnia; and
On some days, almost anyone can experience a bout of depression or a bad mood. However, significant changes in sleep and appetite patterns, suicidal thoughts or attempts to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances should be a concern, and such people should seek the attention of a medical professional.
Seasonal Affective Disorder in Adults and Children
In recent news, attention is drawn to SAD in children and adolescents. Children and teens with SAD may:
- Be irritable or aggressive;
- Express “lazy” behaviors; and
- Be disruptive and off-task at school.
Recent research reveals some startling findings:
- As many as 1.7 to 5.5 percent of children from 9–19 years of age may have SAD.
- Other sources share estimates that 10 to 20 percent of adults with recurrent depression may show signs of a seasonal pattern.
For children and adolescents, the general recommendation is that they increase their consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. Top natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flax seeds;
- Salmon; and
Additional participation in family and outdoor activities may help children and adolescents reduce symptoms. Building snowmen, ice skating, cross-country skiing and sledding are popular with many children and naturally boost energy levels and increase exposure to sunlight.
How to Overcome SAD
Richard Doss, MSN, RN, a Ridgewood Care Center’s nurse manager, shared some tips in The Journal Times. There are small behaviors that a person can do to lessen the symptoms of SAD. Doss’ tips include:
- Set a schedule and continue the normal patterns of a daily routine.
- Open the blinds and go outside, when possible, to receive the benefits of natural light.
- Spend quality time with friends and family and participate in social activities.
- Increase levels of physical activity to boost energy levels.
- Use a journal to write and reflect on the positive aspects of life.
In addition, treatments for SAD include bright light therapy to restore the circadian rhythm, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) sessions to bring awareness in a patient’s ability to alter situations, and medications such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to raise serotonin levels. Patients need to follow the course of treatment and be aware that antidepressants may take from 10 to 30 days to kick in.
There are a number of ways to treat SAD, and small lifestyle and nutritional adjustments may serve to lessen symptoms for children, adolescents and adults with SAD. Methods and tips to reduce symptoms may also serve the individual by strengthening bonds with others and improving general health. For severe symptoms that persist, medication may be a useful way to alleviate SAD symptoms. Family members, community members, behavior health professionals, physicians and nurses can help those with SAD to receive specialized treatment to reduce depressive symptoms and experience relief during their specific seasons.