As you’d expect from its name, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that affects people during a particular season of the year. While it’s possible to suffer a type of SAD during the summer months, the vast majority find their moods slipping during the winter. Usually it lifts when spring returns, but it can be pretty difficult while it lasts.
Now for some good news. “It’s highly treatable,” says Dr. Judith Lynn Overton, a psychiatrist and medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
Common symptoms of SAD
If you’ve suffered from SAD in the past, you may recognize the pattern.
“In Tennessee, it tends to start when the leaves change, and it starts to lift around tax time, or early to mid-April,” notes Dr. Overton.
But if you’ve never been diagnosed with SAD, you may not exactly sure what it looks like or how you might feel. Some common signs and symptoms that you might watch out for include:
- Low energy levels
- Feeling depressed almost all the time
- Losing interest in your favorite activities
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks in front of you
- Sleep problems
- Changes in appetite, including cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods
- Weight gain
Some people may find themselves feeling hopeless or anxious, and in some severe cases, some people may even have suicidal thoughts.
While anyone can develop SAD, some people seem more predisposed to it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are four times more likely than men to be diagnosed with SAD. People with a family history of depression or a personal history of depression are more likely to develop signs of SAD, too.
Schedule a visit with your doctor if you suspect that you (or a loved one) may have SAD. Together, you can chart out the next steps.
Treatments for SAD
“The overwhelming majority of individuals improve with treatment,” says Dr. Overton.
There are 3 types of treatment mostly commonly recommended for people with SAD: medication, light therapy, and psychotherapy.
- Medication. According to Dr. Overton, some doctors recommend starting with an antidepressant, such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or bupropion.
- Light therapy. You can replace some of the missing sunlight with artificial light. Some people find relief in using a light box that emits bright white light for about 20 minutes on a daily basis. (Some studies suggest that using bright light therapy is more effective if you use it early in the morning.) Other people find more relief in using a dawn simulation device, which starts with a low level of light and gradually gets brighter, which simulates a sunrise. Dr. Overton notes that lights for light therapy are much more affordable now than in the past. You don’t need a prescription, and you can order them online, often for less than $50.
- Psychotherapy. For some people, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Research suggests that psychotherapy can help challenge negative thoughts and provide ways to change behavior in a positive way. Often, it’s used in tandem with an antidepressant.
You and your doctor may decide to start with just light therapy or just medication, or you might try a combination. And if the first treatment doesn’t work, try not to worry.
“It may take some different interventions,” says Dr. Overton. “There may be some trial and error in getting the right combination.”
Lifestyle changes can also reduce SAD symptoms
In addition to the standard treatments, your doctor might also suggest some lifestyle changes.
This can be as simple as:
- Removing the blinds or curtains from the windows of your home to let more natural light in.
- Getting outside to get some fresh air and light.
- Looking at your vitamin D levels to see if you might be suffering from a vitamin D deficiency.
“One of the best things you can do is put on your coat and get outside and walk for 30 minutes,” adds Dr. Overton.
The exercise has the added benefit of helping your body resist the tendency toward weight gain that can sometimes occur with cases of SAD.
If you’ve received treatment for SAD in the past, don’t wait to start treatment if you can feel the warning signs. Check in with your doctor, especially if you’ve taken medication in the past and think that you may need to take it again.
“I think it’s better to get on top of it and get started on treatment before you get really symptomatic,” says Dr. Overton.