Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Understanding SAD

Feelings of irritation or sadness can creep up on a person and soon, completely take over, interfering with a person’s daily functioning. Sometimes there are no external reasons to account for these overall “off” feelings. But when these feelings persist over time, especially during the fall and winter months, the diagnosis is often seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Understanding seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is important particularly for older adults.

SAD is also known as major depression disorder with seasonal pattern, winter depression, and seasonal depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association,  SAD affects 5% of adults in the U.S. It generally lasts about 40% of the year, affecting more women than men.

Why is it seasonal?

1) When the days become shorter and the sun shines less, the biochemical balance in our brains can change, interfering with our circadian rhythm. This shift can result in symptoms similar to those of major depression.

2) A drop in serotonin levels due to reduced sunlight may cause depression.

3) The change in season can also affect melatonin in the body. Melatonin is connected to mood and sleep patterns.

Rather than ignore the symptoms, it’s critical to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis if the symptoms continue.

Common Symptoms of SAD

SAD symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and disappear by springtime. Although uncommon, some people experience symptoms during the summer months. The Mayo Clinic lists the following signs and symptoms of SAD:

• Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
• Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
• Having low energy
• Having problems with sleeping
• Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
• Feeling sluggish or agitated
• Having difficulty concentrating
• Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
• Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Treating SAD

Treatment may differ among individuals depending on their biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Common treatments include:

1) Light Therapy/phototherapy

Light therapy replaces the loss of sunlight. A patient must sit in front of a special lightbox for 20 minutes or more per day.

2) Psychotherapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is commonly used to change negative thoughts and behaviors associated with SAD.

3) Meditation and other relaxation techniques

Meditation, as well as yoga and music/art therapy, give people the tools they need to cope with SAD and to feel better.


4) Medication

When the symptoms are severe, anti-depressant drugs are prescribed. 


The Next Step

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of SAD, it’s important to see your physician to determine the cause. Whether these symptoms are the resulting side effects of medication or seasonal affective syndrome, they should be addressed for appropriate treatment.

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