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Understanding and Healing from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Do you feel blue as winter approaches? Do you struggle with wintertime sluggishness and feelings of depression? Does the change of seasons have a noticeably depressive effect on you or a loved one? If so, seasonal effective disorder—often termed SAD—might be the culprit. As with any mental health issue, exploring and understanding the root causes is the first step toward healing.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression. In clinical terms, SAD is termed “major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern.” Far different from occasional winter blues or seasonal melancholy, a diagnosis of SAD requires, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), “a regular temporal relationship between the onset of major depressive episodes in major depressive disorder and a particular time of year.”

Other key elements that help differentiate from occasional blues include a full remission of symptoms after the problematic seasons have changed, a current two-year period when symptoms were present in the problematic seasons with a lack of depression and other symptoms in the non-problematic seasons. Finally, for SAD to be diagnosed, there must be a historical pattern indicating that the individual has had substantially more seasonal major depressive episodes than nonseasonal major depressive episodes. In short, there is a dramatic difference between occasional winter or summer blues and a clinical diagnosis of SAD (major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern).

What Causes SAD?

The specific causes of both winter and summer SAD are unknown, but it is theorized that SAD occurs as a result of changes in serotonin, circadian rhythms, and melatonin. Seasonal changes may affect serotonin levels in certain individuals, and this may trigger depression in those who experience drops in serotonin levels. Also, as autumn begins, the decreased levels of natural sunlight affect circadian rhythms—which can negatively impact an individual’s internal body clock; this can affect sleep, mood, and normal daily activities. Melatonin production can also be affected by the changes in seasons, and these changes can affect sleep, mood, and—as a result—daily routine.

What Are the Key Symptoms of SAD?

Certain key symptoms are present in both winter and summer SAD, such as feeling depressed nearly every day for the bulk of the day, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, difficulty concentrating, suicidal thoughts, sleep difficulties, and feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness. Winter SAD tends to involve greater lethargy, hypersomnia, increased appetite, craving for carbohydrates, and lower energy. Summer SAD, which is less common than winter SAD, tends to include the differentiating symptoms of insomnia, weight loss, and poor appetite.

Does SAD Commonly Occur with Other Mental Health Disorders?

Those who suffer from SAD often have co-occurring disorders. In fact, research shows that SAD is more common in those with recurrent major depression and bipolar disorders. Thus, if an individual has a history of other mental health issues, it is important to be aware of this connection. In general, research indicates that younger individuals are at higher risk for winter SAD episodes, so it’s vital that loved ones assist in obtaining appropriate and timely support.

Is it Possible to Treat and Heal Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Psychotherapy with a trained professional is a front-line treatment for SAD; psychotherapists can offer coping strategies and offer validating, life-changing support. Medical care can also be vital; a physician can order lab tests, vitamin therapy, and light therapy to address some of the underlying causes. Getting natural sunlight, regular good sleep, and PLENTY of exercise are also effective, no-cost tools for improving SAD symptoms.

If seasonal affective disorder causes you or a loved one to fall into depression, it’s important to obtain the appropriate treatment that is needed and deserved. Healing from mental health issues is a vital part of creating a joyful, balanced life!

Dr. Carla Marie Manly is a clinical psychologist and wellness expert based in Sonoma County, California. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Manly is deeply invested in her roles as an author, consultant, advocate, and speaker. With a holistic, body-mind-spirit approach, she specializes in improving professional and personal relationships through mindfulness and healthy communication skills. Viewing self-development as the foundation for optimal wellness, Dr. Manly’s work focuses on building healthy intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships through increased self-awareness. Her work blends traditional psychotherapy with alternative mindfulness practices to support inner freedom, awareness, and balance. Dr. Manly’s latest book, Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly, joins her other highly acclaimed titles, Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend, and Aging Joyfully. Dr. Manly also contributes her expertise publicly as a speaker and through top-notch media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, Oprah, HuffPost, Reader’s Digest, Psychology Today, Parade, GQ, Women’s Health, Architectural Digest, Men’s Health, and more.

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