What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)? How to Cope

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Did you know that depression affects more than 17 million people above the age of 18 in the United States alone?

While many people have major depressive disorder, some suffer from a more specific type of depression known as seasonal depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While SAD may share some characteristics with major depressive disorder, there are many characteristics that make it unique.

If you think you may have seasonal depression but don’t know much about the concept, you’ve clicked on the right article for you.

Here, we will explore what causes seasonal depression, what it is, and what symptoms it has, as well as treatment options and ways to cope on your own. By better understanding seasonal depression, you can better treat the condition so you can have more control over your life and how you feel.

To start off our discussion, we will first take a closer look at what seasonal affective disorder is exactly.

What Is Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal affective disorder, as the name suggests, tends to affect people when the seasons change. Because of this, most people who have seasonal depression tend to experience it around the same time every year.

Seasonal depression usually occurs in the autumn and winter months, but, less commonly, it can also occur in the spring and summer months. Because seasonal depression so commonly occurs during the winter, it is commonly referred to as the winter blues.

It can make you feel like you’re not quite yourself and you may experience a variety of symptoms associated with this condition. More likely than not, these symptoms will worsen as the days get shorter, darker, and colder.

On the other hand, once spring rolls around and sunnier, warm days come about, seasonal depression symptoms begin to lessen. The symptoms of fall and winter depression can include having low energy levels, low motivation, sleep problems, agitation, and feelings of low self-esteem.

In severe cases, some people may have suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide. Weight gain, changes in your eating habits, and oversleeping are also symptoms often associated with seasonal depression that begins in the fall. On the other hand, the symptoms associated with spring-onset seasonal depression can be a little bit different.

For example, spring-onset SAD symptoms tend to include weight loss instead of weight gain. Anxiety is also more common with this type of SAD.  Whether your seasonal depression begins in the spring or the fall, SAD can be a difficult condition to deal with.

However, why do some people suffer from seasonal depression in the first place? Let’s take a closer look at some of the possible causes of seasonal depression next.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Unfortunately, researchers have not yet found a single cause for seasonal depression. However, there seem to be multiple different factors that may contribute to the onset of this condition.

It is believed that the lack of light associated with the fall and winter months has something to do with it since the absence of light can take a toll on the brain after long periods of time.

It is not well understood why some people may suffer from seasonal depression in the fall and winter while others do not. However, for those who have SAD, it is believed that the lack of light can cause the condition because of how light can alter the circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is known as the body’s internal clock and includes the sleep-wake cycle. It is meant to make sure all of the body’s processes are taken care of within a 24-hour cycle.

The circadian rhythm is much more important than allowing us to wake up and fall asleep, however. In fact, this rhythm allows our bodies to create proteins at the right time and to create certain hormones in the brain.

The circadian rhythm can also influence our social behavior and body temperature, as well as many other factors in our lives. As it happens, the presence or absence of light is a major factor that can affect the circadian rhythm. You can imagine that anything that causes a change to this major rhythm in our body can create various changes in our behavior and mood.

The Role of Melatonin in the Brain and Body

One of the hormones that the circadian rhythm promotes in the brain is melatonin. Melatonin is commonly known as the sleep hormone. This is because when melatonin levels are high enough in the brain, we start to feel tired.

The brain produces melatonin when our eyes perceive low light. This tends to start during sunsets and progresses as the day gets darker. This is the circadian rhythm at work.

It is most efficient for our bodies to fall asleep during the night when it is too dark to do much of anything and then wake up when the sun returns in the morning. Sleeping during the night also gives our bodies enough time to recover from the previous day. It also allows our minds to rest and go over the information we have absorbed the previous day.

However, our biological clocks do not always run so smoothly, especially for those who suffer from seasonal depression. If you suffer from SAD, you may be more affected by the lack of light in the winter months than others. Because of this, your brain may produce more melatonin in the absence of light, causing low energy, a common symptom of this condition.

Low energy can often lead to low motivation and apathy. This can affect your performance at work as well as your relationships with those who are close to you. However, melatonin is not the only hormone in the brain responsible for the development of SAD.

The Role of Serotonin

Just as the body’s circadian rhythm can affect the production of melatonin, it can also affect the production of serotonin. Serotonin is the body’s feel-good hormone. It is responsible for keeping our mood balanced and allowing us to feel happiness.

When you don’t get enough sunlight, especially if your circadian rhythm isn’t working as it should, your brain may not produce enough serotonin. Low serotonin levels mixed with high melatonin levels cause the symptoms that are stereotypical of SAD. You will feel tired for most of the day and your mood will be low.

You may feel less motivated to interact with people in social situations. Your sexual drive may decrease and you may crave carbohydrate-rich foods which can contribute to weight gain. In some cases, you may even have trouble thinking or remembering things.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Who does SAD affect?” It is believed that more women than men suffer from SAD, but it is not known why this might be.

While some cases of SAD are believed to be caused by a malfunctioning circadian rhythm, some cases may have causes rooting from a poorly functioning hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a brain structure responsible for regulating mood, hunger, and sleep.

However, more studies are required to find what causes seasonal depression exactly. Whatever the cause may be, there are several treatment options for this condition. If one doesn’t work for you, you can always try the next one.

How to Treat Seasonal Depression

One of the first methods many people try to treat seasonal depression is light therapy. After all, the absence of light in the winter months seems to be correlated with the onset of SAD. It only makes sense to expose yourself to extra light in an attempt to get your brain to produce less melatonin and more serotonin.

Light therapy is also an ideal option if you want to avoid medication for whatever reason. Light therapy involves using a lightbox that exposes you to bright, artificial light. This light is usually white in order to best mimic natural sunlight.

It is important that the light you choose is intense enough to offer the right results. Lights that are too dim will not help. Lightboxes are convenient as you can put them anywhere in your home and turn them on whenever you need them, unlike the real sun.

You can turn on your lightbox when watching TV or eating dinner. You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of light every day, although you can go for more if you want. You also don’t need to absorb 30 minutes of light all at once.

If you have a busy schedule, you can turn on your lightbox throughout the day until you get 30 minutes of light. Keep in mind you should not look directly at the light since this can end up damaging your eyes. You should also try to absorb most of this light in the morning before 10:00.

Exposure to this light should improve your circadian rhythm and lessen the symptoms of seasonal depression. As the days become longer and sunnier, you can lessen your use of the lightbox.

Medication for Seasonal Depression

There are various medications for SAD if artificial light exposure does not work for you. If you do not have very severe seasonal depression, you may not need medication. Instead, you can try different coping and management strategies.

If you do have severe seasonal depression, you can try antidepressants or bipolar medications. By consulting with a therapist, you will be able to find the best medication for you. Currently, bupropion XL is the only medication available that is FDA-approved to treat seasonal depression specifically.

This medication can help your seasonal depression from becoming worse. It can also prevent episodes of major depression associated with seasonal depression. You may experience some side effects when taking these medications.

Usually, side effects will go away after a few weeks. However, if the side effects you experience are severe and are inhibiting your daily life, it is best to stop taking that medication and try a different one. If medication or light therapy doesn’t work to soothe your seasonal depression, this doesn’t mean you should give up hope.

There are plenty of tips and coping mechanisms that you can try to manage your seasonal depression.

How to Manage Your Seasonal Depression on Your Own

Since seasonal depression usually starts up in autumn, try to go out of your way to make autumn more fun for yourself. This can involve planning activities you enjoy such as going out to the movies or taking a visit to the park. By doing things you enjoy, you can focus more on your enjoyment rather than your seasonal depression.

Doing things you enjoy can also help lessen your depressive episodes. Talking with friends is also important as friends can offer great support when you’re feeling down.

Having a schedule is also very important. Many people who suffer from seasonal depression may feel so unmotivated and tired that they give up the schedule they used to have in favor of staying in bed or locked up in the house. This sort of behavior will not help your depression and can even make it worse.

Instead, try to stay active. This can include exercising regularly, trying out new recipes, meeting up with friends, and getting extra work done. By keeping busy, you won’t be focusing so much on your seasonal depression.

Finally, try to get as much sunlight as possible. This may be difficult in the winter months. Even so, try to get up early and get as much morning sun as you can get.

Dealing With Seasonal Depression

By the end of this article, you should know all about what seasonal depression is, its symptoms, and its causes. You also know about the treatment options available and how to cope with SAD on your own. With this information, you can take your life back from seasonal depression and live how you want.

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