Fall is an exciting time: cooler weather, beautiful colors, and a slew of holidays to look forward to. If you love fall, you’re probably busy buying, eating, baking, and carving pumpkins; digging sweaters out of storage; and setting out bundles of dried corn stalks on your front porch. But for some people, the shortened days and colder weather can spark the onset of fatigue, apathy, insomnia, and persistent sadness.
These symptoms are markers of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). While many people experience “winter blues,” feeling tired or sluggish or more melancholy than usual, in people with SAD, these symptoms become so overwhelming that they interfere with daily life and may even lead to suicidal ideation. Because SAD is sporadic, lasting only 4-5 months of the year, many people may not realize that they have it. They may just chalk it up to hating winter or to allergies or to whatever life circumstances are difficult at the time.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Interestingly, SAD is not just relevant during winter. Some people experience a spring or summer version of SAD. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depressive disorder, with some seasonal additions:
- Overeating, particularly carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal/“hibernating”
- Poor appetite
- Restlessness and agitation
- Episodes of violent behavior
To be diagnosed with SAD, you must have symptoms of major depression (and/or the season-specific symptoms listed above), and the symptoms must appear in a specific season for at least 2 years in a row.
Who Gets SAD?
Typically, people who are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder struggle with other mental health issues as well. People who have depression or bipolar are more likely to experience SAD. Someone with bipolar may be more susceptible to depressive episodes in winter months and manic episodes in spring or summer months.
If you think that you or a loved one may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out for help, even if you don’t normally struggle with other mental health issues. SAD can strike anyone, regardless of their mental health history, and treatment is available.
Untreated SAD can lead to problems at school or work, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders, particularly eating disorders (given the changes in eating patterns during the season) and anxiety disorders. It can also, when severe, lead to suicide.
Treatments for SAD
In addition to therapy and, perhaps, medication, treatments for SAD (particularly winter-SAD) will probably include light therapy and vitamin D supplements, both of which can stimulate the production of serotonin. Serotonin has two main functions relevant to depression: it generates feelings of happiness and helps the body produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep cycles.
Light therapy involves sitting near a light therapy box for about 30 minutes. The light is typically full-spectrum fluorescent light that mimics natural sunlight. The lack of sunlight in winter is one of the triggers for SAD, and daily light therapy helps regulate circadian rhythm, boosting mood and helping you sleep.
Vitamin D supplements are another method for compensating for the lack of sun exposure in winter. Sunlight can be used by our bodies to produce vitamin D. When sunlight isn’t as accessible, it’s possible to develop a vitamin D deficiency. Increasing vitamin D levels through supplements may help regulate emotions and sleep.
Miramont Behavioral Health Can Help You Through Any Season
If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of depression, whether seasonal or not, reach out to our facility in Middleton, WI. We treat adults and adolescents suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Our compassionate team will help you understand why you’re feeling this way and provide an individualized treatment plan to help you feel better.