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Seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder: What’s the Difference?

Have you ever felt down as the seasons change and the days get shorter? Or maybe you experience lingering feelings of sadness throughout the year. What you may be experiencing is seasonal affective disorder and although it may feel like depression, there are differences in diagnosis and treatment. Here’s what you should know.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression in which “people experience a significant mood change when the seasons change.” While for most people, seasonal affective disorder begins and ends at about the same times every year, it can be experienced at any time. Typically, symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder begin around the fall/winter months, and tend to subside during the spring. They may include:

  • Feeling sad or down for most of the day, nearly every day
  • Low energy
  • Overeating and weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal ideations

Similar symptoms may occur in the spring or summer months and may include insomnia, poor appetite or weight loss, anxiety, or increased irritability.

There is research to suggest that seasonal affective disorder impacts gender and age groups differently. It is more commonly diagnosed in women and occurs more frequently with younger adults.

What is depression?

Depression, otherwise known as major depressive disorder, is a common mental health condition that negatively impacts the way people think and feel. Symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Feeling sad
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Recurring thoughts of death and suicide

It is estimated that 1 in 15 adults will experience depression in any given year, and 1 in 6 will experience it at some point in their life. Women are more likely than men to experience a depression diagnosis and symptoms typically first appear in late teens to mid-20s.

How are seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder similar? How are they different?

“Depression and SAD are very similar because their symptomology are the same,” says Emily Brault, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Centerstone, “criteria for a major depressive disorder mirrors the symptoms present and associated with SAD.” The main differences between the two are the onset and the duration. Seasonal affective disorder is more likely to occur within the transitional period between seasons whereas depressive episodes can happen at any time.

How to determine a diagnosis and Treatment options

“It takes self-awareness to identify what, if anything, is changing about your routine or mood,” adds Brault. Since the symptoms of each diagnosis are so similar, Brault recommends talking to a doctor about any changes in appetite, sleep schedule, interest in activities, and general mood, to help determine a diagnosis.

Treatment options for both diagnoses may be similar as well which is why it is important for a professional to correctly diagnose your symptoms in order to properly treat the root cause.

Whether you experience symptoms of depression year-round, or only seasonally, these feelings can be overwhelming. Centerstone can help determine a diagnosis or explore treatment options. Visit our counseling services page or call us at 877-HOPE123 (1-877-467-3123) for more information. 



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