Seasonal depression is estimated to affect 10 million Americans and women are 4 times more likely to experience it than men. As we head into the fall and winter months, we thought it would be helpful to shed some light on seasonal depression disorders.
On the opposite ends of the spectrum are the “winter blues” and Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD. The former is a slight change in mood, while the latter can cause serious effects to your livelihood and overall health. We’ll talk about what causes seasonal depression, symptoms, and treatment options. The good news is, treatments are typically very accessible!
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal mood changes start in fall when the temperature drops and there is less sunshine during the day due to an earlier sunset. This can cause a disruption to your circadian rhythms and your sleep cycle.
Good and regular sleep is one of the most important practices for a healthy body and mind. So, when our sleep cycle no longer matches with the night-day cycle, it can cause a disruption to our overall health. People with a seasonal mood disorder are unable to change their circadian rhythm to match the seasons. Chemically and hormonally, their brains aren’t able to adequately adjust serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine releases when they need to, and therefore they feel mismatched with the world around them.
When we enter the fall and winter months, we lose access to the sun which helps our bodies produce vitamin D. A benefit of Vitamin D is that it helps improve your mood and reduces depressive symptoms. Luckily, it can be taken as a supplement or stimulated via light therapy.
People who have bipolar disorder are at an increased risk of having seasonal depression. Some connections have also been found between people who have a seasonal mood disorder and those who have ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety, or panic disorders. That is not to say if you have one of these diagnoses you will certainly be affected by the changing seasons, it’s just a higher likelihood.
Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
There are varying levels of seasonal mood disorders ranging from the “winter blues” to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression. It’s classified as a major depressive disorder that’s specific to seasons. There is also a form of SAD that affects people in the summer months.
The symptoms of SAD and seasonal depression are similar to most depressive symptoms: frequently feeling listless and sad most of the day, losing interest in activities you usually enjoy, low energy, problems with sleeping, and food cravings for carbohydrates which can result in weight gain. In some cases, the depression is serious enough to cause feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and self-harm. In these instances, it’s important to partner with a medical health professional to get treatment.
You shouldn’t diagnose yourself with this disorder- it’s best to seek out a medical professional for an official diagnosis. A psychiatrist or psychologist can accurately assess if it’s a disorder from the seasonal change or something else. Tests can help in diagnosing exactly what’s going on.
That being said, if you feel bogged down by the winter months, you have some options to help alleviate your mood and stay healthy.
Treatment for seasonal affective disorder may include light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. If you have bipolar disorder, tell your health care provider and mental health professional — this is critical to know when prescribing light therapy or an antidepressant. Both treatments can potentially trigger a manic episode.
In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a special light box so that you're exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy mimics natural outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood.
Light therapy is one of the first line treatments for fall-onset SAD. It generally starts working in a few days to a few weeks and causes very few side effects. Research on light therapy is limited, but it appears to be effective for most people in relieving SAD symptoms.
Before you purchase a light box, talk with your health care provider about the best one for you, and familiarize yourself with the variety of features and options so that you buy a high-quality product that's safe and effective. Also ask about how and when to use the light box.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, is another option to treat SAD. A type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy can help you:
-Learn healthy ways to cope with SAD, especially with reducing avoidance behavior and scheduling meaningful activities
-Identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse
-Learn how to manage stress
-Build in healthy behaviors, such as increasing physical activity and improving your sleep patterns
Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe…
Your health care provider may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year. He or she may also recommend that you continue to take the antidepressant beyond the time your symptoms normally go away.
Keep in mind that it may take several weeks to notice full benefits from an antidepressant. In addition, you may have to try different medications before you find one that works well for you and has the fewest side effects.
To read the full article on the Mayo Clinic’s website click here
About 4 to 6% of Americans mental health is affected by the changing seasons. If you suspect you may be a part of this population, it would be worth it to speak to your doctor. You deserve to thrive year-round, and treatment options are available for this diagnosable condition.
At Victor we believe in helping others soar. We offer a large variety of services and programs to help people live their best possible life, regardless of circumstances or diagnoses. If being a part of a team that helps people through hardships like seasonal depression, whether as a mental health professional or administrator, is something that interests you, we invite you to see the list of job openings we have available by clicking the link below.