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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression that is brought on by the change of the seasons. For most people, SAD symptoms start with the waning light and shorter days of early fall or winter. Usually the symptoms subside when spring and summer arrive. Women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men. If you or your loved one feels worse in the fall and winter months, pay attention to the symptoms. If SAD is diagnosed, there are treatments.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder that appear with the advent of winter include:

  • Low energy
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Overeating
  • Withdrawing from social activities

People who suffer with SAD also suffer the symptoms of major depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) they include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Other risk factors for SAD include:

  • Living far from the Equator, such as in the northern United States, where days are short in the winter months
  • A family history of SAD
  • Have existing depression or bipolar disorder

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

When SAD is diagnosed, there are four main treatments that are used alone or in combination to ease the symptoms:

  • Medication: Antidepressants can address the symptoms of depression effectively. They must be prescribed by a physician. There are many different types of antidepressants so an individual may have to try several different medications before finding the one that works best.
  • Light therapy: Light boxes are considered an effective therapy to combat the symptoms of SAD. They replace the natural light that is absent during the day. According to the NIMH, “light boxes filter out the ultraviolet rays and require 20-60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, an amount that is about 20 times greater than ordinary indoor lighting.”
  • Psychotherapy: The type of psychotherapy that is most effective for SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy in which the individual retrains his or her thoughts. New strategies are learned to replace negative thoughts and the individual is encouraged to find positive activities to improve coping skills during the winter.
  • Vitamin D: Some people benefit from Vitamin D supplements but there is no solid clinical evidence to support its use.

Seasonal affective disorder can make it extremely difficult to get through the long winter months. However, recognizing the symptoms and seeking help from a trained healthcare professional can lead to effective treatment.


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