Introduction: What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.), also known as seasonal depression, is a variation of depression that begins and ends around the same time each year. SAD typically occurs during fall/winter months but less commonly occurs in the spring and summer. To be medically diagnosed, you must consistently experience depressive episodes around the same months for at least two years.
If you consistently feel a surge of sadness, lack of energy, or thoughts of hopelessness during a specific time of the year, you may have seasonal affective disorder. This guide will walk you through what SAD is, the symptoms, how to cope with it, and more
Risk Factors of SAD
Like many mental disorders, certain factors that increase the chances of developing seasonal affective disorder. While these factors are not sole causes, they can play a significant role in one’s chances of developing SAD.
- Being a woman: Women are diagnosed four times more than men.
- Living in an area far from the equator: People in areas further from the equator (i.e., Seattle) are more often diagnosed with SAD than those closer (i.e., Florida).
- Family history: People with a family history of mental illnesses such as seasonal depression are more likely to develop SAD.
- Having pre-existing depression or bipolar disorder: Those with these types of mental illness are more likely to feel SAD’s enhanced feelings during designated seasons.
- Younger age: Younger adults are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than older adults. This has been reported even in teens and kids.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Statistics and Facts
Luckily, we live in an age where there have been extensive studies on SAD, such as what can influence it, who’s more at risk, which months see more cases, and which areas are more at risk. Here are a few facts about SAD:
- Jan and Feb are the month’s people with SAD struggle the most. (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder)
- The further you go north in the U.S., the more common SAD is. For example, SAD is seven times more common in Washington State compared to Florida. (https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0301/p1531.html#:~:text=Your%20chance%20of%20getting%20SAD,Washington%20state%20than%20in%20Florida.)
- Roughly 5% of U.S. adults experience SAD and say it lasts 40% of the year (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder). That equates to 146 days or 4.8 months each year.
- SAD can begin at any age but typically starts with those between 18 and 30 (https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder); your chances of SAD go down as you age.
- More than half a million people in the U.S. suffer from SAD. 10-20% may suffer from a mild form of winter blues. (https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression)
- ¾ of those suffering from SAD are women. (https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression)
- Many people with SAD report having a close relative with a mental disorder such as severe depressive disorder (55 percent) or alcohol abuse (34 percent). (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder)
- Five of the ten states with the most depressing winters are located downwind from one of the great lakes. This causes sunlight to be a rarity in the winter. (https://smartasset.com/mortgage/cities-least-depressing-winters)
- Arizona, Florida, and Hawaii have been found to have the sunniest winters, making them easier for those with SAD. (https://smartasset.com/mortgage/cities-least-depressing-winters)
SAD vs. Winter Blues
SAD is often confused with the winter blues; however, both are different. Both are similar in symptoms, but SAD is more severe compared to the winter blues. With the winter blues, symptoms include drowsiness, feeling lethargic, and even a lack of motivation. Those with SAD do experience these symptoms and more.
Seasonal Affective Disorder could be considered to be a more intense form of winter blues. On top of winter blues symptoms, those with SAD experience a more significant mental decline, such as hopelessness and anxiety. As a result, other aspects, such as relationships and work, are impacted. Whereas the winter blues only affects one’s energy and motivation.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms and Causes
SAD Seasonal Affective Disorder not only affects one’s mental well-being but their physical condition as well. It’s essential to understand seasonal depression symptoms as well as seasonal affective disorder causes. Understanding these two aspects can better prepare you for handling this condition.
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
- Episodes of violent behavior
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleep
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Poor appetite with associated weight loss
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
A common question is “what causes seasonal depression?” SAD is in strong correlation with the changing of seasons. With these changes comes a variation in the average amount of physical activities one is doing as well as the amount of sunlight they receive. Both of which impact the chemical levels in one’s brain that help regulate emotional levels.
Lack of Exposure to Sunlight
SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain linked to days where we receive less sunlight exposure. Sunlight plays a critical role in our mental well-being and regulates our sleep schedule, known as our circadian rhythm. A healthy sleep schedule is essential to having good mental health.
Imbalances of Serotonin, Melatonin, and Vitamin D
People with SAD have been found to have an imbalance of serotonin, a chemical in one’s brain that affects mood. It’s also been found that their bodies make too much melatonin, which regulates sleep (explaining why those with SAD sleep so much). They also do not produce enough vitamin D, which is essential to function appropriately.
Treatment and Preventative Methods for SAD
“How to treat seasonal affective disorder?”
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be challenging to manage and cope with. However, there are ways to reduce its effects and keep it from coming back year after year. These are a few seasonal affective disorder treatments preventative steps including seasonal affective disorder self care routines to help:
The proper medication can make a world of difference in treating SAD. It can serve as a preventative to not only reduce SAD symptoms but to help you cope. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms so they can see which medication may be right for you.
Spend More Time Outside, Even When It’s Cloudy
SAD symptoms typically show themselves in the winter, when sun access is limited. Combine this with cold weather, and you have a recipe for SAD. Getting outside, even when it’s cold or cloudy, can make a significant difference. That little access to sunlight helps your brain rebalance its serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D levels, easing SAD
Exercise for 30 Minutes, Three Days per Week
Regular exercise, especially in sunlight, can boost the “feel good” chemicals in your brain, serotonin, endorphins, etc. Find a workout routine that works for you and implement it into your daily activities. If you can’t get outside or to the gym, try implementing regular exercise from your home’s comfort. Those exercises don’t have to be intense, instead designed to simply get you physically active.
Implement Light Therapy Into Your Daily Morning Routine
Light therapy is a simple, safe, and effective method of replacing lost access to sunlight. It involves sitting in front of a therapy lamp for 20-30 minutes each day. The light mimics sunlight and helps reset your circadian rhythm. This allows your body to adjust and produce essential chemicals that are vital to both health and wellness. A primary key to preventing SAD is by starting light therapy at the beginning of fall before days start getting darker, and you feel SAD coming on. You can learn more about light therapy in our 2020 Guide to Light Therapy.
Keep Yourself Involved in Regular Social Activities
Being social is key to our survival, and SAD can cause us not to be social. While challenging, social activities can help ease SAD’s effects and provide you with a support group to lean on. If you can’t get around people or are struggling with where to start, try joining groups specific to SAD for help. These groups provide like-minded individuals with first-hand advice for conquering your condition. Here are a few groups we recommend:
Eat a Well-balanced Diet to Improve Your Energy
SAD is energy-sucking. That effect can lead you in a spiral of depression and mental fatigue. Combatting this effect is an excellent step in the right direction. Eat a well-balanced diet with vitamins and minerals recommended by the FDA. While SAD may cause you to crave surgery foods and carbs, try eating oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas. Those foods can increase your serotonin levels, which improves your mood and energy.
Consult a Mental Health Professional Trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy is a specialized method of treatment proven to help with SAD. It involves problem-solving and reshaping how one approaches and thinks about their condition. This means analyzing one’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes towards a specific area in life. By doing so, they provide the appropriate steps and strategies to change these components and thought patterns.
Take the Necessary Steps to Reduce Stress
Stress can be a significant cause of SAD. Taking the appropriate steps to reduce stress can significantly change the effects of SAD. Try these simple steps:
- Identify what is stressing you out (work overload, bad relationships, etc.) and reduce their impact.
- Try out and implement daily relaxation techniques. Things like yoga, meditation, writing, muscle relaxation, and music can help take off the stress and turn your focus to more constructive thoughts.
- Add something to look forward to each day. Having fun is a simple technique that can reduce SAD. Throw in a daily practice that you can look forward to each day. It can be as simple as a TV show, game, or hobby you love doing.
How to Help Someone with SAD
“How can I help someone with Seasonal Affective Disorder?”
Having a friend or family member struggle with SAD can be scary, worrisome, and challenging. You may feel powerless or hopeless yourself. These simple actions and advice can make a world of difference in not just helping them, but helping you cope with what they’re going through.
Gain a Better Understanding
Try to gain a full understanding of SAD and the effects it has. The better you understand the illness, the more you can help and aid them in coping. Use these key aspects and traits can help you better understand what’s going on:
- Understand that SAD is a severe condition and won’t simply “go away.” It’s a condition that impacts one mental, physical, and sheer will. It takes a lot of time to manage and cope with.
- Do not take it personally. SAD causes people to say pretty mean and harsh statements. It’s essential to understand that it’s not your loved one saying those things; it’s their condition.
- Covering up their condition will not help. Instead, it will make it worse. SAD is a condition no one should take lightly. Do not attempt to downplay it or cover it up as this will make the person feel worse and may deter them from seeking help.
- Practice patience and know your loved one isn’t being lazy. SAD plays a much larger role on one’s life than we may even realize. It makes it hard for people to get up in the morning, let alone work hard, and feel motivated. It’s essential to be patient with them. Be an unconditional, selfless source of support for them.
- Understand you cannot “fix” them or their condition. SAD is not something you can rescue your loved one from. While you can help them, it is entirely up to them to overcome their illness. The only thing you can do is be a support system for them.
Know the Signs of SAD
Being able to identify the signs can make a world of difference in helping. These signs can help you reach out and ask about what’s going on. These are a few surefire signs your love done may have SAD:
- They don’t seem to care about anything anymore. They may not care about pleasurable activities such as hobbies, sex, work, relationships, and being social.
- They’re abnormally negative. Those with SAD tend to have a tough time being positive. They may be overly sad, agitated, angry, moody, hopeless, or short-tempered.
- Frequently complains about being in physical pain or feeling drained. SAD can impact one’s physical well-being. It can cause one to feel achy and sore. It also causes one to feel a lack of energy and trouble functioning as a result.
- Sleeps either too much or not enough. SAD can throw off one’s sleep schedule significantly. This usually causes them to either sleep in too much or not get enough sleep.
- They’re eating too much or too little. One of the effects of SAD is a significant change in eating habits. Those with SAD may experience a substantial difference in their eating habits. This can cause them to cope by overindulging or not eating enough.
- They’re drinking a lot or using drugs. Another common coping mechanism is substance abuse. Those with SAD may begin to use alcohol or drugs as a method of escape.
Know How to Talk to Them
It’s vital to be a compassionate and gentle source of support for them. Let them know it’s okay to let their guard down, you’re there to listen and help, and you won’t judge them. By far, the most significant thing you can be is an excellent listener. Let them open up, let you in, and speak up about how they feel, what they’re going through, and how it’s impacting their life. And above all, do not expect a single conversation to fix everything. SAD is something that takes time to overcome and cope with.
Ways to Start the Conversation
Starting the conversation can be the most awkward and challenging part of helping. Use these tips to start talking to your loved one about SAD, how it’s making them feel, and how you can help:
- Point out things you’ve noticed. Take note of instances where they have not been themself. Be gentle and show examples where you’ve seen them do things that are out of character.
- Let them know you’re concerned. Starting the conversation can be difficult on both ends. Show empathy and concern when first starting. Let them know you care about them and have become worried about their well-being.
- Ask important questions. Questions can often be the gateway to helping them overcome their illness. Not only do they help you further understand what’s going on, but they help show support and let your loved one figure things out. Here are a few questions we gathered from Help Guide to ask:
- “When did you begin feeling like this?”
- “Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?”
- “How can I best support you right now?”
- “Have you thought about getting help?”
Know What and What Not to Say
With SAD, certain statements can help significantly and others that can only hurt the situation. Saying things that are supportive, empathetic, loving, and caring is vital to helping anyone with SAD. Things such as “you’re not alone,” “I’m here for you,” and “please tell me how I can help” help make the person feel comfortable opening up. On the other hand, statements such as “this is all in your head,” “just snap out of it,” and “you should feel better by now” may isolate your loved one. With every statement, be aware of the tone and impact it may have on them.
Encourage Them to Seek Help
A significant cornerstone around SAD is the loss of motivation. This can make getting help difficult. Here are a few tips to gently push your loved one to seek the help they may need:
- Encourage them to get a general check-up with a physician. As mentioned earlier, one of the major causes of SAD is the change in one’s access to sunlight. This change can cause our body to have adverse reactions, SAD being one of them. Getting a checkup can help identify if they need additional supplements or if they need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist for further treatment. This professional opinion can make a world of difference.
- Help them find a doctor to go to. SAD can zap all of your energy and motivation, making it very difficult to seek help. Taking that hurdle away can get them on the right path. Research various doctors and check with their insurance if it’s covered. Doing so can put your loved one in the right motions to get better.
- Help them make a list of symptoms they have. SAD is overwhelming. It creates a whirlpool of emotions that can cause the person to freeze up. Help them compile a list of symptoms and observations to bring to the doctors. This can help the doctor better identify the appropriate treatment methods.
Best Practices for Supporting Their Treatment
Being around someone you care about with SAD is not easy. It requires a lot of compassion, patience, and empathy. Here are a few best practices for being supportive with treatment:
- Give them whatever support they need and are willing to accept. Try to help them with their appointments, stay on top of their treatments, and continue to stay on the path to being better.
- Be realistic about your expectations. Be patient with treatment. Expect there to be hurdles and setbacks with your loved one. Try to focus more on the path rather than the end game.
- Set a good example for them to follow. Try to be someone they can follow and look up to. Try to lead a healthier, more mindful life. Do so by having a positive outlook, eating healthier, exercising, or being a person one can lean on for support.
- Encourage them to be active. Try to get your loved one out when possible. Encourage healthy activities such as exercise, keeping in touch with their own wellness, and doing activities they love. It’s essential to be persistent yet gentle.
- Help out whenever you can. SAD can cause simple tasks to become troublesome. Helping them with small tasks such as chores can provide relief. Even little pick me ups such as a surprise coffee can give them the boost they need. Do so, of course, when it does not significantly hinder your quality of life or well-being.
While It Does Take Patience and Practice, Sad Is Manageable
Seasonal Affective Disorder can have a major significant impact on one’s life and those around them. But with the right action, coping, and support, handling it can be manageable. Which tip did you find most helpful? Leave a comment below.
All information provided above is only intended to be personal advice and tips, not medical advice. If you are feeling suicidal, please seek expert help or contact the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
This content was originally posted by Richmar at https://www.richmarweb.com/news-events and is used with permission.
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