Even the most upbeat individuals may find it difficult to get through the winter. Given how depressing everything can seem, it gets dark early, it’s cold outside, and there is generally a lack of motivation to go out and about.
Even though it’s completely normal to not particularly enjoy winter, if you feel like you have trouble both physically and emotionally during this season, you might start to wonder if you’re suffering from the mental health condition known as seasonal affective disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD can cause symptoms like feeling down most of the day, feeling unworthy, having low energy, and losing interest in things you used to enjoy.
Although seasonal affective disorder can be a difficult illness to deal with, there are treatments that can be helpful. What you should know about SAD and how to treat it is provided below.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
According to the NIMH, SAD is a form of depression that has a cyclical seasonal pattern. The typical annual symptom duration is four to five months. While SAD can manifest itself during the summer, according to the NIMH, it typically occurs during the winter months.
There are some theories, but scientists still don’t fully comprehend what causes SAD. According to NIMH, those with SAD may experience lower serotonin levels in their nerve cells during the winter. In the winter, they may also overproduce the hormone melatonin, which is crucial for the sleep-wake cycle and causes feelings of lethargy.
A deficiency in vitamin D, a vitamin that encourages the production of serotonin, has also been linked to SAD.
Research has also connected vitamin D deficiency to the signs of more widespread types of depression.
Last but not least, a deficiency in vitamin D, which research has connected to depressive symptoms, may also be to blame.
Why is it important to seek treatment if you have SAD?
According to Hanne Hoffman, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Michigan State University and the director of the Hoffman Lab, which investigates the effects of light on health, mood, and changes in brain function, SAD is more than just the “winter blues.” According to her, the condition’s symptoms “can be distressing and overwhelming and can interfere with daily functioning.”
The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA’s Andrew Leuchter, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Neuromodulation Division, emphasizes that it’s “really important” to think about SAD “in the same way we think about depression and other kinds of illnesses.”
We would want to treat it, he continues, “just like we would any other form of depression.”
When to seek help for seasonal affective disorder
You should without a doubt speak with a professional if you think you need assistance with SAD (or any other health condition). Hoffman advises that if you’re unsure it’s time to see a doctor, experiencing several of the symptoms listed below can be a sign:
- You have a lack of energy
- You’re not as motivated as you usually are
- You have trouble concentrating
- You feel “down”
- You feel grumpy, moody, or anxious
- Your eating patterns have changed
- Your weight has changed
- Your sleep quality is worse and you might sleep more, but you still feel tired when you get up
- You feel worthless
- You feel guilty
- You’ve had thoughts of suicide
Hoffman cites seasonality as a factor in SAD. If untreated, these symptoms for winter SAD will recur every year in the fall and winter, according to the expert. If you exhibit these symptoms, it’s crucial to speak with your primary care physician to determine the best course of action.
What is the course of treatment for SAD?
According to Dr. Leuchter, there are generally several main categories of SAD treatment, and your doctor may advise you to try one or more of these to help manage your symptoms.
Since the 1980s, light therapy has been a mainstay of SAD treatment, according to the NIMH, and involves spending 30 to 45 minutes each day in front of a very bright light box. This treatment aims to compensate for the lack of natural sunlight during the winter by exposing patients to a bright light (i.e., one that is 10,000 lux).
Ordinary indoor light is about 20 times as bright as light boxes. Hoffman asserts that light therapy is most effective when used in the early morning and no later than 1 p.m. According to her, the majority of patients experience symptom improvement one to two weeks after beginning treatment, but it’s crucial to continue the regimen.
According to Hoffman, “exact mechanisms of light therapy action remain unknown.” “It is believed that light therapy stimulates the neuronal networks that control your wellbeing. In other words, brain circuits can be compared to “brain highways,” where lessening traffic on the highway results in a decrease in feel-good signals like serotonin, which then results in less traffic to the brain’s “feel-good” centers, which may result in depression.
Sessions of twice-weekly psychotherapy, also referred to as “talk therapy,” “have been shown to be effective at reducing the symptoms of SAD,” claims Hoffman. According to Hoffman, psychotherapy “works well in combination with light therapy.”
According to the NIMH, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of therapy meant to teach people how to deal with difficult circumstances, has been specially tailored for SAD patients and is known as CBT-SAD. It usually takes place over the course of two weekly group sessions for six weeks and helps to replace pessimistic thoughts about the wintertime. Behavioral activation, a technique used in CBT-SAD, enables people to find and schedule joyful indoor and outdoor activities to lift their mood.
Physical therapies like light boxes and psychotherapy are among the most successful treatments, according to Dr. Leuchter.
SAD may be treated with antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), according to Dr. Leuchter. The NIMH lists fluoxetine, citalopram, sertraline, paroxetine, and escitalopram as some of the most popular SSRIs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved the antidepressant bupropion, which, when taken daily from the fall through the spring, can help prevent major SAD episodes.
According to Dr. Leuchter, antidepressants can be beneficial for treating depression in general. Some patients will require both medication and light therapy, according to the doctor.
According to the NIMH, patients who are vitamin D deficient may benefit from taking supplements. However, there is conflicting evidence regarding the supplement’s efficacy; while vitamin D appears to have no effect on some people, others appear to experience results comparable to those of light therapy.
In addition to more conventional therapies, the Mayo Clinic advises making lifestyle adjustments to treat SAD. These may consist of:
- Making your environment sunnier and brighter by doing things like opening your blinds and sitting closer to bright windows during the day
- Getting outside as much as possible
- Exercising regularly
- Normalizing sleep patterns by scheduling reliable wake and bed times
According to Dr. Leuchter, “many people favour a more holistic approach to treatment.”
Again, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider if you think you may have SAD. They ought to be able to offer suggestions for the following actions.