Does your mood change when the temperature drops? It may be Seasonal Affective Disorder
What comes to mind when you think of fall in New England? Maybe it’s apple picking, pumpkin patches, or the picturesque fall foliage. If you love the fall aesthetic, this transition can be exciting, but for others, the temperature change can have a negative impact. The cooler air and early sunsets can affect a person’s sleep patterns, motivation focus, and eating habits. While many individuals describe this as “seasonal funk,” it is more accurately called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health describes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a common type of depression that impacts about 5 percent of U.S adults approximately 40 percent of the year. While SAD mostly affects individuals living in cooler climates during the colder months, it is important to note that in some cases, SAD can also affect individuals during the warmer months.
What are the symptoms of SAD?Symptoms for SAD vary from mild to severe and can include many symptoms similar to major depression, such as:
- Loss of interest and pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed
- Social withdrawal and increased sensitivity to rejection
- Grouchiness and anxiety
- Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
- Extreme tiredness
- Decreased sex drive
- Decreased ability to focus
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Physical problems, such as headaches
- Suicidal thoughts
Symptoms for fall-onset SAD, also known as winter depression, start in the late fall and last into early winter months. Symptoms tend to ease during the summer months, including:
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
Symptoms for spring-onset SAD, also known as summer depression, begin in the late spring to early summer. This type of seasonal depression is less common with symptoms including:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Agitation or anxiety
- Increased irritability
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There are multiple factors that may come into play. Change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood. Both serotonin and melatonin help maintain the body’s daily rhythm that is tied to the seasonal night-day cycle. SAD changes the serotonin and melatonin levels in an individual, disrupting their normal daily rhythms. As a result, they can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes. The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt the body's biological clock, also known as circadian rhythm—and lead to feelings of depression. Reduced sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
Who is at risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD can happen to anyone, but there are some factors that may increase your risk. Research shows young adult women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than males and older adults. It is also more common among people who live further north or further south of the equator, due to the decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months. Sunlight can produce Vitamin D and therefore boost serotonin levels. Less sunlight may result in low levels of vitamin D in the body. You’re also more at risk if there is a family history of depression or other neurological conditions such as major depression and bipolar disorder.
Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you think you may be depressed, we encourage you to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Treatments for winter depression and summer depression often differ. This may include
- Exposure to a special light or also known as light therapy is beneficial to those who are suffering from SAD. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. The light boxes are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor light (without potentially damaging UV light) making it a safe treatment for most individuals. Light therapy is most beneficial when you use it the first hour of waking up every day.
- Antidepressant medications help with severe SAD symptoms. Since SAD, like any other type of depression, is associated with disturbances in serotonin activity. Anti-depressants are used to treat when symptoms occur. Antidepressants prescribed by your doctor can help correct a chemical imbalance that may lead to SAD.
- Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy is another option to treat SAD. Talk therapy can help you to learn healthy ways to cope, identify and changed negative thoughts and behaviors that may make you feel worse, learn how to manage stress, and build in healthy behaviors.
Check with your healthcare provider for a recommendation on treatments for seasonal affective disorder.
What can you do about SAD?
Here’s some tips to work through seasonal funk:
- Set realistic goals and priorities
- Break large tasks into small ones
- Delay big decisions until the depression has lifted.
- Don't make a big change right away
- Try to be with other people
- Confide in someone you trust
- Do something nice for someone else
- Practice regular exercise
- Eat healthy well-balanced meals
- Stay away from alcohol and drugs as it can worsen symptoms
I made an appointment with my healthcare provider, now what?
Congratulations on taking the first step to healing your mental health. Before your visit, write down questions you want to be answered. At the visit, take notes including diagnosis, medication, treatment, or testing information. If you’re a member of Mass General Brigham Health Plan looking for a provider, visit our dedicated Behavioral Health Page.
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