What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

31 Jan by HPA/LiveWell Clinical Psychology

Sometimes known as “winter depression,” seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. Approximately 10 million Americans experience SAD, with a wide range in severity. The symptoms are usually more severe in the winter months, although some people may experience them in the summer. The symptoms of SAD can have a serious impact on a person’s sense of well-being – at HPA/LiveWell in Albany, NY, we strive to highlight the impact that seasonal affective disorder can have on the quality of life of those affected.

Seasonal Depression

It is theorized that there may be a genetic link to seasonal affective disorder, however, the specific cause is not fully understood. People with SAD may produce melatonin in higher than average doses, as less exposure to sunlight during winter months may cause problems with the hypothalamus (the way the body releases hormones).  This can result in increased feelings of sleepiness. People with SAD may also produce lower than average amounts of serotonin, a hormone that affects mood, sleep, and appetite. The body’s circadian rhythms may also be affected; therefore, a lack of sunlight can disrupt the body clock and lead to the symptoms of SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder may vary from person to person, but according to the DSM-V, those affected may experience some of the following:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Feelings of despair and worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Lethargy
  • Increased time spent sleeping and difficulty getting up in the mornings
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • An increase in appetite for sweet or starchy foods

The symptoms of summer SAD are:

  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment

Treatment to alleviate the symptoms of seasonal depression often uses a combined approach based on the following options:

  • Antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s).
  • Lifestyle changes such as an increase in exposure to daylight, increased exercise, and dietary supplementation with vitamin D.
  • Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Mindfulness strategies which reduce the stress levels associated with SAD.
  • Light therapy.

LightBox Therapy

Many people with seasonal depression find that light therapy considerably improves their symptoms. The treatment involves sitting in proximity to a light box for up to an hour each day, which helps to replace the sunlight that is lacking during the winter months.

To find out more about seasonal affective disorder and its impact on mental health, or to learn about the mental health services provided at HPA/LiveWell in Albany, NY, contact us at 518-218-1188.