Seasonal affective disorder, more commonly known as SAD, is a form of depression marked by a recurring seasonal pattern—meaning that the depression happens specifically during a certain time of year. Most people with SAD are affected by the onset of winter (although there are some people who get it during the summer).
The exact cause of SAD is still unknown, but lack of sunlight that comes with shorter days most likely plays a big role, says psychotherapist Alison Stone. “It disrupts our circadian rhythms, melatonin production, and certain neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for producing serotonin,” she explains. The resulting imbalance can trigger depression in some people—most often in women, people who live far from the equator, or people with a family history of depression.
People often toss the term "seasonal affective disorder" around lightly, but the truth is that SAD is just as serious as other forms of depression. If you think you may suffer from SAD, here’s everything you need to know—and how to take action.
Seasonal affective disorder symptoms are very similar to depression symptoms—with a catch
Stone says seasonal affective disorder symptoms are very similar to those of depression. “Think fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, feeling hopeless, to name a few,” she says. Other symptoms of the winter pattern of seasonal affective disorder include appetite or weight changes and difficulty sleeping, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This sounds a lot like depression...because SAD is a type of depression. But there's one thing that makes SAD unique: that association with the season. “These feelings are specifically correlated with the onset of certain seasons—usually winter.” So if you're only experiencing this intense depression symptoms once the weather changes (or what you have gets way worse)...you're likely dealing with SAD.
This also should not be confused with the "winter blues," aka when you feel grouchy and stir-crazy and bummed after days and weeks of miserable, slushy, cold winter weather. Sure, there might be some overlap with symptoms (bad mood, tiredness, or even feeling hopeless when you see the weather forecast). But Stone says these blues don't heavily impact your quality of life, and you can still perform most daily tasks pretty easily. On the other hand, "an individual suffering from SAD might experience more symptoms of depression which severely interfere with their capacity to enjoy life,” says Stone. Just like how people with depression aren't *just* sad, people with seasonal affective disorder aren't *just* tired or in a bad mood.
So basically, if your winter-related mood and exhaustion are making it impossible to get things done at work, you might have seasonal affective disorder. If you're mostly just pissed because you're freaking sick of having constant dry skin and spending 10 minutes bundling up before you can go outside...well, you're probably just having a bout of Grinchiness.
How to deal with seasonal affective disorder
Remember how I said that SAD is a form of depression? If you think you have it, you should treat it as seriously as any other mental health issue. Talking to a mental health professional is always a good idea (especially to get an official diagnosis), and making some lifestyle changes can help manage symptoms as well.
“Make sure you are getting enough exercise and eating low-inflammatory foods," says Stone. "Increasing your Vitamin D intake is especially important."
Stone also recommends light therapy. “This basically means sitting in front of an artificial light box to help supplement the lack of natural sunlight during winter months,” she says. Most people see improvements in their SAD symptoms in just a week or two of using it every day. You can actually buy a light therapy lamp on Amazon, like this one or this one.
Long story short, SAD doesn’t have to be something you just put up with every winter. There are a lot of great treatment options out there, and the sooner you take it seriously, the sooner you can start enjoying your life again. And if you don’t suffer from SAD, work on being more sensitive to your friends who may—because it’s a serious mental health issue for a lot of people.
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