As many as six out of every 100 people in the United States experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to the American Psychological Foundation, with symptoms more common in women than in men.
Also known as seasonal depression, Dr. Imran Iqbal of Baptist Health Hardin Medical Group Behavioral Health said SAD is a form of recurrent depression with a seasonal pattern. He said it is a kind of depression that has a regular temporal relationship with a particular time of the year, such as fall or winter, but also can regularly occur in the summer as well.
“Simply put, when fall or winter arrive, you become depressed. When springtime comes, your depression lifts,” he said. “It is important to note that this does not include cases where there are obvious seasonally related stressors, It does not count as SAD if you become depressed every winter because you regularly become unemployed during the winter season.”
Iqbal said a specific set of symptoms are related to SAD. The patients identify a depressed mood, fatigue, sleeping a lot, overeating, weight gain and a craving for carbohydrates.
“It is kind of like going into hibernation mode. That being said, all of the other symptoms of depression still apply, such as decreased pleasure in activities, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration, feeling like your body is too heavy and made out of lead, and, most importantly, thoughts of hurting yourself,” he said.
“If you regularly become depressed when fall or winter arrive, and then become happy again come spring or summer, you likely have SAD.”
Dr. Rollin Rhodes, a licensed clinical psychologist, said as the days get shorter, some people begin experiencing depression. For some people, the symptoms are fairly mild. Others may see their tempers getting short, and experience day-long fatigue.
He said common symptoms include sad mood, loss of interest in activities, sleeping more, craving sweets, gaining weight and having a hard time concentrating.
According to Iqbal, seasonal depression typically lasts about 40 percent of the year. It is more common among women (75 percent) than men (25 percent) and the average age of those who get it is about 40 years old, he said.
The theory behind seasonal affective disorder is that exposure to less sunlight in the winter because of fewer daylight hours leads to depression, Iqbal said.
“For instance, SAD is more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours. Thus, one of the ways to treat SAD is through exposure to light using a special light box,” he said. “This is definitely a different strategy than is typically employed to treat depression. Of course, medication and psychotherapy (talk therapy) can also be used to manage SAD, just like in regular depression.”
Rhodes said COVID-19 this last year has been another contributor to depression.
“The COVID virus has affected our lives in countless ways. We are social beings living in isolation. So many of our activities are affected; traveling, eating out, going to our favorite stores, and for some of us working,” he said in an email. “Days are less structured. Many of us are grieving. We live in fear of what could happen to us or to loved ones. Did you ever realize how much you would miss hugs? Those extra calories and daily drinks don’t help. Clearly, all this contributes to seasonal depression.”
To help cope with seasonal depression, Iqbal said a person can increase his/her exposure to sunlight every day by spending time outside or arranging their home or office so that they are always exposed to a window during the day.
Additionally, he said having healthy relationships is always a safeguard against depression or for that matter any other mental health condition. Getting enough sleep at night is invaluable as well, he said, as is getting regular exercise.
“It is like any other treatable mental health condition. It is a flaw of chemistry, not of character. It is not your fault that you are depressed, anymore than it is your fault that you have high blood pressures, or high blood sugars. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, to take medication, or to see a therapist. You don’t have to go it alone, suffer in silence, or tough it out on your own. You have a right to be happy, and there are specialists in the community who have trained especially for that purpose,” Iqbal said.
Additionally, Rhodes said results suggest treating someone initially with Cognitive Behavior Therapy is the most effective treatment in the long term.
Rhodes said the therapist works with the patient on two types of skills: behavioral (doing) skills and cognitive (thinking) skills.
“The behavioral skills involve identifying, scheduling and doing pleasurable activities every day in the winter. Cognitive skills include recognizing depressing thoughts and focusing on realistic coping statements,” he said. “Over time, these behaviors can counteract the down, lethargic mood and the tendency to give in to ‘hibernation’ that is common in SAD.”
If you have difficulty functioning at school or work or if your symptoms interfere with your ability to interact with your family or others during the winter months, Rhodes said talk to your doctor about a referral to a psychologist or find a psychologist yourself.
“A psychologist can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them,” he said. “Psychologists are trained to understand the connection between the mind and body. They can offer strategies to help adjust your goals, as well as help you change unhealthy behaviors and address emotional issues. They may also talk to you about referral to a physician such as a psychiatrist or family doctor to consider medication.”
When you feel your depression is severe or if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Iqbal said you should consult a doctor immediately or seek help at the closest emergency room.