Fall and Seasonal Affective Disorder: What You Need to Know

By Jacquelyn Buffo, MS, LPC, CAADC

October 12, 2021

SAD

When you think of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), you probably think of low mood and symptoms of depression that occur during the cold winter months. Symptoms usually begin in the fall months and last throughout the winter. Millions of people across the country are diagnosed with SAD. More specifically, research shows that 10 million people in the United States experience this condition.

If you experience symptoms of SAD, you can take steps to manage those symptoms, and help is available.

What exactly is SAD?

Many people notice a change in mood during the cold winter months. Reduced sunshine, hours of daylight, and bitter cold can impact our mood and mental health. If you experience significant changes in mood and behavior during the late fall and winter months, you may be experiencing SAD.

SAD is not considered a distinct form of depression; instead, it’s a subset of major depression. Symptoms include those of major depression and last for 4-5 months. They include:

  • Craving carbohydrates and overeating
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain
  • Social isolation
  • Low energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Low mood
  • Feeling hopeless and worthless
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable

It’s important to note that you don’t need to experience all these symptoms to meet SAD or major depression criteria. It is vital to assess your functioning. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and having difficulty performing tasks of daily living (showering, going to work, taking care of your children), you may have SAD.

SAD statistics

Seasonal affective disorder can impact individuals who do not have any other mental health issues and people diagnosed with major depression and other mental health and mood disorders. More specifically:

  • SAD impacts .5%-3% of the general population
  • SAD occurs in 25% of people who have bipolar disorder
  • SAD is found in 10%-20% of people with major depressive disorder

Risk factors for SAD

There is no one known cause for the development of SAD, but many factors can contribute to SAD. Studies show that risk factors include:

  • Living in the north, far away from the equator, where there is minimal sunlight during the winter months
  • Being female
  • Being diagnosed with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder (I and II), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, or eating disorder
  • Having a vitamin D deficiency

Treatment for SAD

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, you may benefit from treatment. Luckily, there are many ways to treat SAD’s symptoms effectively. What works for you may be different than what works for other people. Here are some common treatments that your provider may use.

Light therapy

Scientists believe that light therapy works by introducing artificial “sun rays” to your body, resetting your biological clock.

There are two different types of light therapy, including bright light treatment and dawn simulation. With bright light treatment, you place the light near you on a desk or workstation and turn it on while working throughout your day. With dawn simulation, a dim light activates in the morning and gradually gets brighter throughout the morning; this emulates a sunrise.

If you’re interested in incorporating light therapy into your routine, talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you.

Medication

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of SAD or any other mood and mental health disorder, consult with your doctor about what you are experiencing. They may be able to prescribe an anti-depressant or mood stabilizer to help manage and reduce your symptoms. If you need help paying for your medication, ScriptSave® WellRx can help you save more on your next pharmacy visit.

Counseling

Evidence-based therapeutic interventions can help reduce and manage symptoms of SAD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of those methods. A licensed mental health professional can also provide behavioral strategies to help you mitigate and reduce your vulnerability to symptoms of SAD.

Other behavioral and lifestyle strategies such as engaging in fun and enjoyable activities, staying hydrated, getting plenty of rest, eating healthy foods, and exercising can improve your mood and combat symptoms of depression.

Help is available

If you think you or someone you know is struggling with SAD, help is available. You do not have to live with the negative impact of SAD or any other mental health disorder. Talk to your doctor about treatment options available to you.

Jacquelyn Buffo is a licensed professional counselor with experience and expertise in substance abuse and mental health issues. She received her MS in mental health counseling from Capella University and is a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor through the state of Michigan. She is also in the process of receiving her certification in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Jacquelyn has experience working with clients suffering from addiction and mental health issues on an in-home, residential, and outpatient basis. Currently, she works with adolescents and adults with Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder through Henry Ford Health System.

Resources:

https://www.bu.edu/articles/2019/seasonal-affective-disorder/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder

https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/seasonal-affective-disorder/#frequency

https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw169553

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