Recognizing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

This time of year when the weather is cold, wet and dreary, there are many days when we’d like to pull the covers back over our heads and stay in bed, rather than get out and face the day. We often loosely blame the winter months for sapping our energy, leaving us tired, irritable and moody. But did you know there is actually a very real, disabling form of depression that can take hold this time of year, called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder can significantly impair one’s quality of life, including overall health and mood. This winter, don’t brush off a bad case of “seasonal funk” and tough it out. It may be a larger, but very treatable, issue.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (also called SAD) is a type of depression that follows the seasons. It has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and lack of sunlight in winter. The experience of SAD can be more than just the “winter blues,” and it is treatable.

Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms of SAD usually begin in October or November and subside by March or April. December through February is often the toughest time, and holiday loneliness and stress can increase symptoms. Symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feelings of depression, hopelessness, sadness, loss of self-esteem and irritability
  • Sleeping more than usual, yet still feeling tired
  • Increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates and sweets
  • Weight gain and heavy “leaden” feeling in the arms and legs
  • Loss of energy and concentration
  • Loss of enjoyment and lack of motivation or interest in activities and socialization

If these symptoms last for more than two weeks, or your daily living is impacted, contact a professional.

Who is at Risk?

  • Younger people and women are most commonly affected by SAD. Women make up 75 percent of those diagnosed, yet men exhibit more severe symptoms.
  • 10-20 percent of the U.S. population is affected by SAD (as many as half a million people per year).
  • Individuals who live in northern regions or farther away from the equator experience SAD more often.
  • Individuals who have a family history of SAD are more likely to be affected.
  • If you already have clinical depression or Bipolar Disorder, depression may worsen seasonally.

Treatment Options

  • Exposure to sun or other light. Try opening the blinds for natural light or going for a walk outdoors. Light therapy called Phototherapy can also help. This includes close exposure to a special florescent lamp. Sessions begin at fifteen minutes and increase to a few hours.
  • Individual counseling sessions can help individuals learn healthy ways to cope, reduce stress and recognize and change negative thoughts and behaviors.
  • Medication such as prescription antidepressants.
  • Self-care such as exercise, being social, healthy diet and stress management or interventions with employee assistance programs can help. Avoid turning to alcohol or excessive eating.