Learn more about dealing with seasonal affective disorder

You know the feeling — it’s late afternoon and the sky is already dark. You’ll be driving home from work in the dark. You probably left your house that morning in the dark, too, and spent most of the day indoors.

When the days get shorter, you may begin to feel less enthusiastic and active. You may find yourself going to bed earlier, sleeping longer, and even eating more. Many people notice changes in their routine and mood during the winter months.

Some people feel more than just the “winter blues” and may have periods when they have difficulty functioning. When this occurs during fall or winter months, it can be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s a type of depression that typically occurs during months with little sunlight.

When Does SAD Affect People?

Depending on the person, SAD symptoms usually begin during the fall and winter months when the days are short with fewer hours of sunlight. SAD symptoms usually improve in the spring when the days get longer. Left untreated, SAD symptoms can recur every year.

Shorter days and a lack of sunlight during the fall and winter months may cause SAD symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness and decreased activity level.
  • Crying spells and mood swings.
  • Grouchiness.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Body aches.
  • Loss of or decreased sex drive.
  • Trouble sleeping or a desire to hibernate.
  • Cravings for carbohydrates and/or overeating.
  • Loss of interest in routine things.

How Common Is SAD?

SAD affects about 5% of the population. A majority of SAD patients are seen in primary care offices. Nearly 15% of these patients also have major depressive disorder.

Who Is at Risk of Developing SAD?

SAD is more common in women, but it can affect anyone. Younger people are more commonly diagnosed with SAD than older adults. And those with a family history of some form of depression may also be at a higher risk. Having a major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder may cause SAD symptoms to be more intense.

Some ongoing studies suggest that living in regions with less sunlight exposure, or living farther from the equator, may increase the risk of developing SAD. Genetic links also are being studied.

Children and adolescents can experience SAD. Because the school year occurs in the fall and winter months in the northern hemisphere, it can be difficult to distinguish school-related stress or depression from SAD.

Other reported links include levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps your internal clock (circadian rhythm) keep time. Changes to the balance of light and dark hours (such as when days are shorter in the winter) can affect when melatonin is produced, disturbing your internal clock. This can lead to fatigue and difficulty sleeping.

Other seasonal changes, such as being unable to enjoy outdoor activities, may contribute to SAD symptoms.

Ways to Deal with SAD

Here are a few ways to cope with SAD:

Try light therapy

Light therapy can help you cope with SAD by replacing missing sunlight with an artificial bright light. It involves sitting in front of a specially designed light box for 30 to 60 minutes each day, ideally in the morning before sunrise or right after sunset.

Light therapy is affordable but talk to your doctor before trying it. People with certain conditions may need more guidance and direction.

Make plans with friends and family

When you’re feeling down, it can be hard to make time to see people. Try to schedule some fun activities with family and friends, which can help boost your mood. Make a list of things you love to do, whether it’s going to the movies or browsing in a bookstore.

If you are comfortable, let loved ones know how SAD is affecting you. They can support you and join you in activities.

Take up a hobby

Winter is a good time to try out a new indoor or outdoor hobby. If you don’t know what you want to do, consider things you liked to do as a kid.

Did you love to visit the library or throw a ball around? Dust off that library card or gather your kids or nieces and nephews for a game of catch in the backyard. If you want to try something brand new, like knitting or meditation, look for classes or groups in your area and online.

Keep a regular schedule

Try to get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. Shorter daylight hours during the winter months can disturb your body’s internal clock. Keeping a regular schedule can also help improve your mood and energy level.

Get treated for SAD

It’s normal to feel a bit more tired and down during the winter months. If these feelings interfere with your ability to function and enjoy life, talk to your doctor as these may be signs of SAD. SAD is a type of depression that is treatable. UPMC’s Behavioral and Mental Health Services can help you find the right therapy and mental health care.

How Is SAD Diagnosed?

SAD may affect your overall quality of life, so it is important to tell your primary care provider or mental health professional if you experience symptoms of SAD.

Typically, your doctor will ask you questions related to the symptoms of SAD and may ask you to complete a questionnaire. These questions may help to identify symptoms of depression and SAD. If your symptoms mainly occur during fall or winter and improve in spring or summer, you may be experiencing SAD. Other screening forms used by your doctor may ask you how you are feeling, what your symptoms are, and how often you experience them over a two-week period.

Additional testing may be needed to ensure that your symptoms are not signs of other medical conditions. Your doctor will want to rule out thyroid disease, anemia, vitamin D deficiency, and other issues. You’ll also be asked about any health conditions you have that may have similar symptoms to SAD, such as alcohol abuse, attention deficit disorder, and other mental health conditions.

Your doctor also will review any medicine you are currently taking. Some medicines can have side effects that contribute to or cause the feelings you are experiencing.

Your doctor will work with you to develop a follow-up plan to best suit your needs. Recent data suggest that office visits every four to eight weeks are helpful in monitoring SAD. Be sure to discuss treatment and long-term care with your provider.

Behavioral and Mental Health Services at UPMC

If you or someone you love is struggling with symptoms of SAD, depression, addiction, or other mental illness, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital can help. We offer a wide array of behavioral health services for children and adults and provide cutting-edge programs and compassionate care for all types of psychiatric conditions and mental health disorders. Call us at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

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