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Seasonal Affective Disorder

The winter blues, summertime sadness, seasonal depression – seasonal affective disorder goes by many different names. You may have noticed that the colder months tend to get you down more easily and more often – you definitely aren’t alone in this! An estimated 10 - 20% of depression cases follow a seasonal pattern, predominantly autumn-winter depression and spring-summer remission. 


What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a type of depression or bipolar disorder that disproportionately affects people at certain times of year – most commonly in winter. Symptoms of SAD usually increase gradually over autumn and winter, and improve with the beginning of spring. SAD is especially common in young adults and women, and in temperate climates. 
Symptoms of depression are often experienced with SAD, such as sadness, decreased energy and activity, changes in sleep, appetite and weight, or suicidal thoughts. Although SAD shares many symptoms with depression, there are also specific SAD symptoms that differ from depression:
  • Withdrawal from social and previously enjoyed activities
  • Increased appetite, cravings for carb-heavy foods like potatoes and pasta, and weight gain.
  • Difficulty sleeping, needing extra sleep at night and taking long naps
  • Lowered energy and ability to concentrate
  • Decreased libido and sexual function
People with SAD may also get an unusual rush of energy around spring, when the warmer weather and sunshine returns. SAD usually starts between the ages of 20-30 and lasts throughout the entire lifespan.

What causes seasonal affective disorder?
It is unclear what the exact cause of SAD is. We do know that the body has particular rhythms of sleep and wake that are activated by light and dark, known as circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms can also determine changes in hormones, appetite, mood and other bodily functions. Changes to your ‘body clock’ during shortened winter daylight hours may lead to the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

What treatments are available for seasonal affective disorder?
Light therapy involves supplementing the shortened hours of sunlight with a ‘lamp’ or ‘lightbox’ that produces up to 25 times as much light as a regular sunshine. Duration can vary from 30 minutes to 2 hours per day. These can be very expensive, and are often reserved for severe cases of SAD. 
Anti-depressant medication can also be used to treat SAD, which requires a prescription. You can discuss the option of medication with a general practitioner or psychiatrist to determine what type of medication could be suitable for you. 
Counselling utilising cognitive behavioural therapy can be used alone or with medication or light therapy, to help treat the thoughts, feelings and ‘hibernation’ behaviours and developing fun wintertime activities.

What else can I do to manage seasonal affective disorder?
  • Socialise! Spending time with friends and family, and making an effort to participate in your favourite activities can help reduce the effects of SAD.
  • Exercise can give you a rush of dopamine, improve self-esteem and sleep cycles, and combat the symptom of weight gain.
  • Get outside! When the sky is clear, try putting on a warm jacket and getting outdoors to soak up as much sunlight as possible.
  • Try to arrange the furniture in the spaces you spend the most time in so that you can sit near a window, and trim back tree branches that block sunlight into your work space. 
  • Vitamin supplements: Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with depression. Sunlight helps with absorption of Vitamin D, and supplements can be bought over the counter at the supermarket or chemist.

Where can I find more information?
Your GP, psychologist or other mental health professional will be a great source of information about SAD, and can help you with determining what type of treatment will be the most helpful for you.
Learning more about circadian rhythms can help you with understanding how changes in your sleep across seasons impacts your mood: 

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By Ashlyn Hansen, ADAVIC Volunteer

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