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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Published: December 6, 2022

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that you only experience during certain seasons or times of the year. Most people with SAD experience depressive symptoms in the winter months, before recovering during the spring and summer months. Symptoms begin to reemerge around the start of the next winter. More rarely, people can experience the opposite patterns, with summer depression, beginning in late spring or early summer, and recovery during winter.

Like any type of depression, SAD can significantly interfere with a person's life during their depressive episodes. However, with effective support, it's possible to successfully treat SAD, manage symptoms, and live a fulfilling life all year round.

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It's normal to experience mood changes with the seasons. Many people find that the cold weather and short days towards the end of the year bring on feelings of winter blues.

However, when low mood, lack of energy, and other feelings begin to interfere with your daily life, it could be a sign that you're living with depression. Some SAD symptoms to look out for include:

  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Wanting to stay away from friends and other people
  • Feeling sad, low, or hopeless
  • Experiencing low self-esteem or feeling guilty
  • Feeling angry, irritable, anxious, or agitated
  • Getting ill more easily
  • Appetite changes
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Experiencing suicidal feelings

For winter depression:

  • Craving starchy and sweet foods
  • Weight gain
  • Finding it hard to wake up

For summer depression:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Having trouble sleeping
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Suicide Prevention

For some people, severe SAD symptoms can involve suicidal thoughts, ideations, or suicide attempts. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7 for free and confidential support. If you think someone's life is in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.

What Are Some Other Types of Depression?

Sometimes, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be confused with other mental disorders, particularly mood disorders. It's always important to visit a trained mental health professional who can offer an accurate diagnosis.

Some other types of depression include:

  • Unipolar depression, such as major depression
  • Bipolar disorder, characterized by alternating depressive and manic episodes
  • Postnatal depression

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Scientists still aren't sure about the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Research suggests that many of the causes may be the same as major depressive disorder, including genetic factors, exposure to early life adversity, and stressful life events.

There may also be some causes specific to seasonal affective disorder. These include:

Changes In Light

Light plays an important part in our body's natural rhythms and functions. When it hits the back of the retina, it sends signals to various parts of the brain, causing the release of hormones such as melatonin and serotonin. These hormones help to regulate many important functions, including mood, energy, sleep, and appetite.

In the winter, shorter days mean that we are exposed to less sunlight and less natural light than in the summer. People with seasonal affective disorder may be more affected by these changes than other people, leading to patterns of seasonal depression.

Your Body Clock and Circadian Rhythm

Our bodies have their internal body clock, known as our circadian rhythms. The circadian clock helps us to feel tired in the evening so we can sleep and awake during the day. The mechanisms behind our circadian rhythms are complex, but we know that the hormone melatonin and changes in light play important roles.

One theory suggests that for some people who experience winter depression, their internal clock isn't functioning in the same way as others. It may not be responsive to the changes in season, leaving their body clock and sleep patterns in sync with daylight. Some scientists think this may lead to tiredness and depression.

Unbalanced Levels of Seratonin and Melatonin

People who live with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may have unbalanced levels of serotonin and melatonin, two hormones affected by changes in light and involved in regulating mood and emotion. Research suggests that some people with SAD have higher levels of melatonin and lower levels of serotonin during the winter. However, the causal connections and underlying mechanisms of this relationship are still not known.

Change in Temperature

Some people feel less comfortable in warmer or colder temperatures. People who are less tolerant to cold weather may be more likely to start feeling low around late fall or early winter, while those less tolerant to warm weather may find that the summer depresses their mood. However, there is research into these connections is still limited.

How Can You Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Living with seasonal depression is tough, but there is help available. There are several evidence-based treatment methods proven to effectively treat SAD and help you live a fulfilling and productive life.

Talk Therapy

Research has shown that many types of talk therapy can be effective in treating seasonal affective disorder and other forms of depression. Some of the most established talk therapies are:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • interpersonal therapy (IPT)
  • behavioral activation
  • psychodynamic psychotherapy

Some courses of talk therapy, particularly CBT, are short, lasting around 20 sessions. Other courses are much longer and some people benefit from seeing a therapist indefinitely.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

Antidepressant medications such as SSRIs may help to reduce depression symptoms in people with seasonal depression. Doctors usually prescribe SSRIs alongside psychotherapy to address the underlying causes of depressive symptoms.

Light Therapy

Bright light therapy uses a light therapy box to shine a strong light on someone's face, although not directly into their eyes. Typical light therapy sessions might last around 30 minutes and often take place in the morning. Light boxes are designed to produce very bright light while emitting as little UV light as possible.

Light therapy aims to mimic the effects of natural light, stimulating the production of hormones like serotonin and melatonin. While some research has shown bright light therapy to be useful in treating SAD, it is not yet fully understood how effective it is in treating other kinds of depression.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is an innovative, non-invasive therapy that uses gentle magnetic waves to stimulate certain brain areas, leading to pronounced changes in mood and behavior. FDA-approved for treatment-resistant depression in 2008, research has shown that TMS may improve depression symptoms in over 50% of clients.

TMS is an outpatient procedure that does not require surgery and has far fewer side effects than medications like anti-depressants. If you think TMS could be for you, you can speak to a mental health professional about how to access the treatment.

Life-Style Changes

Sometimes simple lifestyle changes can help to improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. This may involve waking up with the sunrise or spending more time outside during daylight hours.

However, for many people living with SAD, lifestyle changes by themselves are not enough. If you're experiencing depressive symptoms, always visit a doctor for expert advice and access to any necessary treatment.

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Pioneering Mental Health Clinic at GIA Miami

GIA Miami is a pioneering mental wellness center that specializes in TMS treatment. We offer the most advanced, up-to-date treatment approaches in individualized treatment plans, tailored to each client's needs. We deliver our programs with compassion, integrity, and respect, ensuring each client receives the very best treatment for them.

We understand that many of our clients have busy lives, and make sure that we fit our treatment plans around your schedule. Our modern and open facilities are conveniently located in downtown Miami, with in-house parking.

If you are living with depression, another mental health condition, or looking to improve your mental performance, contact us today. We'll help you find the best version of yourself.

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