Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT
Have you ever felt sad or depressed around the Thanksgiving season? It might sound counterintuitive because this is a time when families and friends gather in celebration, and yet it usually happens around this same time every year, right? This is also the time when the seasons change from Fall to Winter. Now, have you heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder? It is a type of depression that manifests when seasons change. What you’re feeling on rainy days and when cold nights start swooping in isn’t just a figment of your imagination. It is a real and treatable mental health disorder.
Humans, and all other mammals, function best when following a particular routine. The body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm, regulating our sleep/wake cycle. If the rhythm or routine changes, we first try to resist before adapting. We can’t help it - it’s a form of survival that has evolved since change is new, and new means something we are unsure of. This occurs in our brains during season changes when we suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. It usually happens in seasons where there is a decline in sunlight and outdoor activities, yet it can also occur during the summer months.
Although it is more prevalent in places where they have shorter days, this disorder can be experienced by anyone in any part of the world, and it is more common than you might think. Approximately 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it is 4 times more common in women than in men. Genetics may play a role as well as many people with Seasonal Affective Disorder report that they have at least one close family member with a mental health disorder.
Although we know that too much exposure to the sun can be dangerous due to the risk of skin cancer, enjoying the sunlight in moderation and while wearing sunscreen is beneficial for your physical and mental health. While the exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder is unknown, studies have shown that it is likely linked to a deficiency of Vitamin D and serotonin, and both are contained within the sunlight. Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin, and this neurotransmitter sends messages throughout the brain that help boost your mood and promote calm feelings.
Serotonin also works in tandem with melatonin, which helps to get a good night's sleep by regulating the circadian rhythm mentioned earlier. Vitamin D is essential for a healthy immune system, bone and muscular health, and mental health. In the winter months, we spend more time indoors, and this lack of sunlight often contributes to the development of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Now let’s see what symptoms we can observe and watch out for if you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Having little to no energy or motivation
Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little)
Weight change due to changes in appetite (gain or loss)
Feeling sad or losing interest in things you used to enjoy doing
Feeling depressed or anxious
Having a lack of concentration
Social isolation or feeling withdrawn
Let’s also look at the difference in symptoms when the disorder is triggered during these specific seasons.
The winter-pattern Seasonal Affective Disorder includes:
Hypersomnia, or oversleeping
Overeating (this may involve a craving for carbohydrates specifically)
Feeling like “hibernating” and withdrawing socially.
The summer-pattern Seasonal Affective Disorder includes:
Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Weight loss due to poor appetite (this may also relate to body image in the warmer months)
Restlessness or episodes of violent behavior
How do I Know I Have SAD and Not Major Depressive Disorder?
These symptoms may look familiar because they are also present in someone diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Now, what is the difference between the two, and how can we know which one affects us? Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered a subset of depressive disorders. This means that someone who suffers from this condition will be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal pattern. We can differentiate the two by knowing when it occurs. Major Depressive Disorder can be triggered without season changes. In contrast, Seasonal Affective Disorder usually appears at the same time every year, and most often when seasons change or are about to change.
Like any other mental health disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder can not be cured. Instead, the symptoms are treated and should not impact your quality of life when managed effectively. As always, recognition and acceptance that one suffers from this condition is the first step. It is not a bad thing and shouldn’t be stigmatized. Help can be given more effectively if we know where to direct it. More often than not, when we think about ourselves needing help, it makes us uncomfortable and perhaps even ashamed.
To put a bit of peace in your mind, times have changed for the better. Mental health is no longer the taboo topic that it once was. Apart from the countless resources online made available to the general public about mental health, therapists and counselors have extensively studied how to keep up with the varying triggers and symptoms that one may experience. There is no wrong way of verbalizing what we feel or how we take steps to handle it. Professional therapists have been trained to validate your feelings and follow proven techniques to aid each client with their unique path to mental health recovery.
Please review this list of treatment options that one might choose to work towards a better state of mental health. Treatment options are summarized below, yet there are many ways to learn more about them. Apart from reading articles, I suggest talking to your local therapists and counselors. It would make a difference to speak with a professional, which is much less intimidating than reading a highly technical write-up. Read on below, and hopefully, you can find an option that interests you.
Treatment options include:
Talk therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): It may sound simple, yet sometimes just talking through your feelings with an unbiased party can help reduce negative symptoms and improve coping skills.
Light therapy: Using what is called a lightbox, you are exposed to light that mimics natural sunlight to increase Vitamin D levels and improve overall mood.
Medications: Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be helpful if other forms of treatment are not enough on their own. Medication should be used alongside talk therapy.
Self-care: Activities such as exercising for 20-30 minutes a day can increase your mood by raising feel-good endorphins in your brain.
When Should I Get Help?
If some of the above-listed symptoms sound like what you are experiencing, know that you are not alone. Fortunately, there are simple and attainable steps available to improve your mental health.
Talk to your doctor or make an appointment at the Neurofeedback and Counseling Center of PA to talk to one of our therapists. It is never too early or too late to ask for help. We also offer virtual counseling available to schedule now!
If you are in a crisis or know an individual is actively suicidal, call 911 to receive immediate help or visit your nearest emergency room. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone over the phone. Individuals can also text HOME to 741741 to communicate with trained Crisis Counselors through text messages. The Trevor Project - Crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LBGTQ youth, 1-866-488-7386