For 1 to 2% of the population, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a severe health problem.
It takes a toll on multiple aspects of peoples’ lives, including their temper, energy, hunger, and sleep.
If you want to learn more about this condition, you’ve come to the right place.
To control that emotional and physical instability every change in season, you need to know exactly what you are dealing with. That’s why we decided to make a detailed guide for living with this seasonal depression.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a unique type of depression that appears at a specific period of the year. For example, it can begin in autumn, worsen in early winter, and subside in spring.
Women are more susceptible to this depressive disorder than men. It occurs 4 times more often in the female population between the ages of 18 and 30.
In most cases, people experience drastic mood changes during the winter months. Patients with rare forms of this affective disorder experience it in the early days of summer. Their symptoms can end in autumn. It can be a debilitating disorder to live with. But, it is still possible for SAD sufferers to function to their full potential.
What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of this seasonal depression are relatively easy to recognize. They are often the same for everyone. The only difference is the intensity depending on the season. They can range from severe to mild symptoms but will eventually subside.
These SAD symptoms include:
- Daytime drowsiness
- Sleep problems
- Depression (almost daily)
- Lack of energy
- Bad mood
- Weight and appetite changes
- Trouble staying focused
- Feeling worthless or helpless
- Regular suicidal thoughts
According to research, the intensity will vary based on the patient’s seasonal pattern. They are commonly less prevalent in summer.
People who usually get winter SAD tend to have increased sleep and oversleep. They can experience carbohydrate craving and weight gain. While individuals who have spring or summer SAD are vulnerable to consistent weight loss, poor appetite, insomnia, anxiety, and agitation.
However, some patients experience constant agitation, restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia. In these severe cases, it is possible to have episodes of violent behavior.
What Are the Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact causes of this particular affective disorder remain unknown. However, scientists believe certain factors may contribute to the symptoms. These factors include:
- Poor melatonin levels – The melatonin is responsible for stabilizing the mood and sleeping patterns. With every change in seasons, the body experiences a drastic misbalance in melatonin levels. Unless you keep the melatonin under control, you will have difficulty getting enough sleep or stabilizing the mood swings.
- Insufficient serotonin levels – It’s normal to experience a drop in serotonin levels, particularly in winter. This valuable neurotransmitter (brain chemical) has a vital role in mood. When the body lacks serotonin, it can become vulnerable to depression. That’s why the disorder is known for causing unstable mental health.
- Lack of vitamin D – Based on a clinical analysis, vitamin D deficiency could cause seasonal affective disorder. Vitamin D is known for boosting mood. But, during winter, the body cannot get enough vitamin D. Due to the minimal sunlight exposure, the body can experience mental instability and depression, which go hand-in-hand with this particular disorder.
- Disrupted circadian rhythm – The biological clock is prone to experiencing sudden changes in winter. This could be the reason behind the affective disorder. The new season can disrupt the internal mechanism and cause anxiety.
The younger generation is more vulnerable to this seasonal depression than older adults. But, age is not the only risk factor. Other contributors might make people more susceptible to this health complication.
It is important that you understand them so you will have an easier time managing the disorder. Here are a couple of factors you should know about.
- Genes: Genes play a key role in seasonal affective disorder. Researchers have tried to integrate psychological and biological mechanisms to explain the risk of hereditary complications. It seems that the vulnerability has a lot to do with family history. If there is someone in your family with affective disorder, you could be susceptible to the condition.
- Geographical Location: Experts suggest that living far away from the equator may elevate the risk of developing an affective disorder in regions where winter days last shorter; people might be more vulnerable to this disorder.
Based on reports, in the U.S., only 1% of the population in Florida has a seasonal affective disorder. While over 9% in Alaska are living with the condition. In Canada, 2% to 6% of the population have SAD. Similar statistics were recorded in the United Kingdom, with 2% of the population dealing with the disorder.
- Mood Disorder: Individuals who already have depression or bipolar disorder might be weaker to behavioral and cognitive changes from SAD. Their condition can also get worse each season if they don’t try to manage their mental health.
These people will only be diagnosed with affective disorder if their depression or bipolar disorder worsens during a specific season every year. However, individuals with seasonal bipolar disorder often need different forms of treatment than SAD sufferers.
Not everyone takes the depressive symptoms seriously. But, if you don’t get the necessary treatment, you risk worsening your condition. That’s where these complications will start taking a toll on your physical and mental health.
You may be prone to:
- Substance abuse
- Academic decline
- Social isolation
- Other psychological disorders ( like dietary disorders)
Children can also be affected. But, it is a lot more common among teenagers and young adults. What’s important is that you understand the condition and try to get on-time treatment before you develop any severe health complications.
Misconceptions Surrounding Seasonal Affective Disorder
Just like any medical condition, SAD comes with plenty of misconceptions. If you want to control your mental and emotional health, you need to understand these misconceptions and learn the truth. Here are the most popular myths debunked.
“Winter Blues” And SAD Are the Same
Many people mistake seasonal affective disorder for the “winter blues.” These terms are regularly used interchangeably. However, the “winter blues” represent feeling a little down during winter, just like a winter depression. These feelings subside relatively quickly and rarely come back.
This affective disorder is different. It’s a reoccurring major depressive disorder that’s a lot more impactful than just a simple mood change. It’s a clinical diagnosis, which requires consistent treatment, psychiatric evaluation, and adequate therapy.
SAD Happens Just In Winter
Most people experience this disorder at the end of the year. However, some patients can experience it when it’s still hot outside. Although it impacts just 1% of the affected population, reverse SAD is possible. It is a summer depression that causes a range of different health complications.
Only Women Get SAD
The majority of affective disorder patients are female. But, men can also experience this disorder. Anyone can get affected, regardless of background, age, or gender.
Patients With SAD Suffer the Entire Year
When the season changes, so do the symptoms of the affective disorder. Patients usually get back to normal and continue their daily routines. Their mood improves, and their depression subsides.
Since there are multiple types of depression, it is hard for patients to properly diagnose their affective disorder. That’s why it’s crucial to contact a mental health professional. Only a doctor will determine if you have a seasonal affective disorder.
You won’t need to take any medical tests to get a diagnosis. To identify the problem, a doctor will ask a couple of questions. First, they will ask for how long you’ve had the symptoms. You will need to talk about the severity and their impact on your daily life.
After that, it’s crucial to point out if you noticed a change in your eating and sleep pattern. With the behavior change, it is easy to figure out if you have the disorder. But, the most important question is whether you notice these symptoms at different seasons.
The seasonal affective disorder happens at a certain time of the year. If your health issues are reoccurring, you will probably be diagnosed with the condition.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment
Most SAD patients use a combination of light therapy, antidepressants, counseling, and vitamin D supplements. But, only a doctor can determine the best possible treatment for your particular condition. Here is a brief overview of the most popular treatment options for affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder light therapy
This type of therapy is one of the most used complementary treatments for SAD. The therapy is known for soothing the symptoms, stabilizing the mental illness, and managing the depressive episode.
Depending on the type of SAD triggers, doctors can suggest different approaches to light therapy. Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, uses artificial lights that mimic sunlight. It is designed to provide affective disorder relief and calm the symptoms.
Patients need to sit in front of a lightbox (light therapy box) at a specific part of the day from 20 to 60 min. The therapy will last shorter if patients also take any antidepressants.
The affective disorder is very similar to major depression. Since it affects the human system’s serotonin activity, the body needs to replenish those sources to get back on track. That’s where antidepressants can help.
Antidepressant medication has become the go-to choice for treating this particular disorder. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are mainly prescribed to patients with this disorder. Second generation medication like Prozac (fluoxetine) may come in handy. When combined with light therapy, Prozac can have some amazing properties.
It is a cost-effective and well-tolerated drug. One study showed that with the only 150mg to 300mg of Prozac before the onset of the disorder, people managed to reduce the prevalence of a major depressive episode.
Counseling is critical for individuals with this affective disorder. Talk therapy will become an invaluable strategy when living with seasonal affective disorder. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could prove useful.
This therapy can break down all the problems and help patients understand the negative patterns of their disorder. With proper counseling therapy sessions, you will learn how to mitigate the poor energy and SAD mood. If the symptoms are not too severe, you will also have an easier time managing the stress.
Vitamin D Supplements
Patients with a Vitamin D deficiency will need to implement some dietary changes to replenish their sources. They will need to first analyze their concentration levels before taking any supplements.
This vitamin can help improve the symptoms of depression and provide people with the support they need to cope with psychological instability. In the long run, it may also prove beneficial for managing the seasonal affective disorder.
Conventional therapy is not the only thing that can help. You will also need to focus on at-home therapy and some lifestyle changes to get the effects you need. To manage your condition, it’s important to know the triggers.
Some individuals with affective disorder use natural sunlight to curb their symptoms. For example, they open the curtains in the morning, sit closer to the window during the day, or spend more time outside.
The fresh air seems to relieve the pressure and allows patients to remain socially and physically active. Moderate exercise can also be a worthwhile therapy. It can treat depression and have a positive effect on mood.
The ideal way to manage the disorder is to plan your activities accordingly based on the season. That way, you will reduce its impact on your daily life. Keeping a healthy and well-balanced diet can help. Anything that can curb emotional instability can provide you with the support you need.
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SAD is a highly debilitating condition to live with. It is a more serious issue than regular depression that shouldn’t be underestimated. Proper therapy, medication, and counseling can help you keep the disorder under control.
But, it is important that you don’t just rely on conventional medicine. Sometimes you have to put in more effort to get the relief you are hoping for. That’s where sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet can come in handy. By incorporating healthy habits in your daily routine, you may be able to minimize the symptoms and live your life to the fullest.