Here’s Why Seasonal Affective Disorder Makes You Sad In Winter & How To Cope

A change in seasons not only means shorter days and less sun, but also mood swings and loss of energy for some people.

While some think it’s just a case of “winter blues,” the changes may be caused by something more serious: seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a seasonal type of depression.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health, millions of people suffer from SAD and may not even know they have the condition.

That’s why it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and ways to get help.

Here’s what you need to know about seasonal affective disorder and how to deal with it.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression related to the changing of the seasons, beginning and ending around the same time each year.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 5% of US adults have SAD.

In Canada, that number drops to about 2 to 3% of people affected by the disorder, says the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Experts say women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men. Geography also plays a role in the disorder. The further north or south of the equator you are, the higher your risk of developing SAD.

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What are the warning signs of seasonal depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health says that SAD isn’t considered a disorder in its own right, but rather a type of depression that occurs because of a seasonal pattern.

This means that symptoms of the disorder are “associated with major depression” and can last anywhere from four to five months.

Symptoms a person may experience include depression most of the day, changes in appetite and weight, problems sleeping, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, and low energy.

Symptoms can also change depending on the time of year a person experiences the disorder.

When it happens in the winter, a person can also oversleep, overeat, gain weight, and become socially withdrawn, which experts liken to “hibernating.”

A person experiencing SAD in the spring and summer may experience trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight loss, anxiety, and episodes of violent behavior.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosed?

There are certain criteria that must be met for a person to be diagnosed with seasonal depression.

On its website, the National Institute of Mental Health states that a person must have symptoms of major depression (as seen above), the symptoms must occur during certain times of the year for at least two years in a row, and the depressive episodes must be “severe” more frequently than others “depressive episodes” that a person may have at other times of the year.

When does seasonal affective disorder usually start?

For most people with SAD, symptoms begin in the fall and continue through the winter, disappearing in the spring and summer.

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While seasonal affective disorder is more common this time of year, it can be flipped for others.

That means a person will experience SAD in the spring and summer and will feel better in the fall and winter months, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How Can You Cope With Seasonal Depression?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there are a number of methods a person can use to treat seasonal depression.

Spending time outdoors, especially when it’s sunny, can play a big part in coping with SAD.

“People don’t realize that even on a dull gray winter day, you get a lot brighter light outdoors than the brightest office light. So it’s important to have light outdoors,” says Dr. Raymond Lam, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, explained narcity.

“For many people, setting the bedroom light to come on in the morning helps wake them up,” he continued. “It’s like a little morning signal for their biological clock.”

If that is not possible, light therapy is an alternative that experts highly recommend. In light therapy, a person sits in front of a 10,000 lux light box for about 30 to 45 minutes each day, usually first thing in the morning. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these lightboxes are 20 times brighter than standard indoor lighting and filter out potentially harmful UV light.

Psychotherapy and antidepressants may also be recommended by a doctor.

A person struggling with the mood disorder may also benefit from exercise, a balanced diet, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

Is seasonal depression the same as winter blues?

Many people can get confused between the winter blues and seasonal depression because they appear similar.

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A mental health expert at the National Institutes of Health explains winter blues as a “general term, not a medical diagnosis.”

“It’s fairly common, and it’s mild rather than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a relatively short period of time,” says Dr. Matthew Rudorfer on the NIH website.

As a form of depression, seasonal depression is much more serious than the winter blues because it affects a person’s daily life, including their feelings and thoughts, for a longer period of time.

It also returns around the same time every year.

“I always recommend that people who feel they have symptoms, to the point where they impair function, have them checked out by their GP [to] Make sure there’s nothing else going on,” Lam told Narcity.

The cover image of this article was used for illustration purposes only.

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