Understanding‌ ‌SAD:‌ ‌the‌ ‌darker‌ ‌months‌ ‌depression‌

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Understanding Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is depression associated with late autumn and winter. It is believed by mental health experts to be due to a lack of light.

For many people it often seems to come on around this time of the year – especially when the clocks change from daylight saving time to winter hours, meaning the nights draw in. Those shorter days leave an estimated 10 million Americans suffering from SAD.

Sometimes known as “winter depression”, four times more women are diagnosed with it than men. Some people diagnosed with SAD have symptoms during the spring and summer and actually feel better during the winter – but this is a very small percentage.

One reason that more people get depressed during darker – and colder – months is that they will be staying inside more. This means if there are problems in life they can often seem to become exaggerated as people are left alone with their thoughts for much more time than in the spring and summer.

As well, people usually socialize less often and perhaps don’t play sports or do hobbies as much in the colder darker months. Socializing, sports and hobbies can act as distractions from any problems or negative feelings – as well as naturally lifting our mood when we spend time with family and friends and do things we enjoy.

It seems clear from statistics that a lack of light is behind SAD. For instance, the percentage of people affected by SAD ranges from almost 10 percent in Alaska to only 1.4 percent in Florida.

What are the symptoms of SAD?

What are the symptoms of SAD

Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of normal depression. But if someone always gets these in autumn and they persist until spring it could be SAD.

SAD’s intensity varies for each person. Some just find it slightly annoying: they might feel a bit flat and lacking their usual energy levels.

But for other people with SAD, it can be extremely harsh. It can negatively impact everything they do and make normal life seem impossible.

Major signs of SAD are similar to regular depression and include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Continual low mood
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in usual daily activities
  • Increased appetite that often leads to weight gain and low feelings because of this
  • Being less sociable
  • Lower or no libido
  • Lethargic and lacking in energy
  • Feeling sleepy during the daytime and sleeping for longer than usual at nighttime
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Often feeling tearful
  • Suffering from anxiety
  • Frequently feeling stressed
  • Feeling agitated

Treating SAD

There are several treatments that have proven successful at helping with and treating SAD. One of the therapies that have been seen to especially help is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT looks at automatic thoughts that have been learned throughout childhood, but that in adulthood have become dysfunctional patterns. CBT seeks to undo these automatic dysfunctional thoughts.

Some SAD sufferers find that light therapy helps them. It involves sitting by a special type of lamp known as a lightbox for up to an hour every morning. The light from the lightbox makes up the sunlight that’s missing during the autumn and winter months.

It is believed the light helps with SAD by encouraging the brain to reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy). At the same time, it increases levels of serotonin (a hormone that affects mood, including happiness and wellbeing).

There are also some things that someone suffering from SAD can try themselves to see if they help. These are:

  • Exercise regularly, especially outside during daylight hours.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and eat at regular times without rushing.
  • Make home and working environments as light as you can, also with fresh air coming in.
  • Stay close to windows when you are inside so that you get maximum light.
  • Get as much natural sunlight as you can by spending as much time as possible outside when it is sunny.
  • Although not always easy, do your best to talk to family and friends about your SAD. If they are aware of it and understand it more it will enable them to offer more support.
  • Avoid stressful situations and learn how to deal with any stress that does arise.

What can I do for someone with SAD?

Woman with SAD symptoms

Almost everyone knows of a family member, friend, or colleague who has depression. The best thing we can do for them is to show empathy, kindness and tell them we care about them.

Listen to them carefully without judgment. This builds trust. Offer them a feeling of hope and confidence that you know they can get through it.

Frequently people will try to mask or numb depression with drink and/or drugs, including prescribed medication. Or there is what is known as behavioral addiction to such as relationships, the internet, gambling, work, shopping, or exercise.

Anyone suffering from any sort of depression needs to seek professional help. This is because it usually does not go away on its own – and for the majority, it will progressively worsen.

At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we work with every guest to ensure their treatment program is completely individualized. This gives a much swifter and enduring recovery. Tikvah Lake’s experienced and carefully selected professional team has helped a great many people with all sorts of emotional and mental health problems. Get in touch with us to discover how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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