Is Seasonal Depression Real?

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Ever notice how shorter days can make you feel cranky, crabby and in poor spirits? It may not be the winter blues – it may be seasonal affective disorder (SAD). About half a million people in the U.S. have SAD, and some estimate that between 10-20 percent of depression has a seasonal component. [Source: Magnussen] Think you are suffering from seasonal depression? Read on to learn about this common condition.

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Comedian, Rosie O'Donnell, has spoken out about her Seasonal Affective Disorder.
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The symptoms of SAD are fairly straightforward [Source: Mental Health America]:

  • Depression: misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, despair, and apathy
  • Anxiety: tension and inability to tolerate stress
  • Moodchanges: extremes of mood and, in some, periods of mania in spring and summer
  • Sleep problems: desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake or, sometimes, disturbed sleep and early morning waking
  • Lethargy: feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine
  • Overeating: craving for starchy and sweet foods, resulting in weight gain
  • Social problems: irritability and desire to avoid social contact
  • Sexual problems: loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact

A recurrent pattern of seasonal depression over at least two fall/winter seasons is also part of the diagnostic criteria. [Source: Mayo]

Although the above sound a lot like classical depression symptoms, it is important to note that that, as opposed to other types of depression triggers, the main trigger for SAD is the fall and winter season, usually October through April. [Source: NAMI] The reduced sunlight in these months is part of the story about why SAD occurs. [Source: Mayo]

It wasn't until1984 that Seasonal Affective Disorder was given a clearly defined diagnosis [Source: American Journal of Psychiatry], so it isn't discussed as often as other forms of depression. And there aren't as many people who are open about the way their mood changes in the colder winter months.

But some celebs have spoken out about this disorder: OK! Magazine reports that singer Natalie Imbruglia, an Australian pop singer, "suffered from SAD when missing the Aussie sunshine while in London winter.

Funny lady Rosie O'Donnell has also acknowledged her issues with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD: "I too suffer from SAD: seasonal disorder...so if it's sunny in Miami, I instantly feel happy, and when it's gray and cloudy, I feel like I'm being tortured by someone," O'Donnell told the TODAY show in 2007. [Rosie O'Donnell, Source: Today]

There are rare occasions when seasonal depression occurs at other times, such as summer depression. Symptoms of summer depression can include: anxiety, insomnia, irritability, agitation, weight loss, poor appetite, and increased sex drive. [Source: Mayo]

"Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder" also occurs in the spring and summer, but is associated with bipolar disorder, as manic or hypomanic symptoms (slightly less than a full mania) occur. [Source: Mayo] Symptoms can include: very elevated mood, hyperactivity, agitation, enthusiasm disproportional with the situation, and rapid speech and thoughts. [Source: Mayo]

All three types of seasonal patterns (traditional SAD, summer depression, and reverse SAD) have a specific season as the main triggering event, even though the respective seasons and symptoms may differ.

Finally, the term "winter blues" is sometimes used interchangeably with SAD; however, there is a difference between the two, mostly having to do with severity. Winter blues is the lesser form, which many people may experience to varying degrees, and usually goes away with increased exercise, more time spent outside, and changing the environment to be brighter. [Source: WVU]

SAD usually is the more severe form, requiring more intensive light therapy, psychotherapy, and medications. (See below for more about Treatment) [Source: WVU]

Prolific science fiction writer Barbara Hambly has been very vocal about having SAD, especially as she was not diagnosed until mid-life. She told writer Ben Cook about it during a 2005 personal interview:

"I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder: depression in the winter as the hours of sunlight shorten. It took me until I was nearly fifty to figure it out, but the equatorial swap from midsummer to midwinter causes a dislocation in my brain-chemistry whose effect is to throw me into severe depression – exacerbated by whatever else is going on in my life or in the world at the time." [Source: Cook]

Hambly aptly notes one of the biggest risk factors of SAD: "An equatorial swap" (she traveled). [Source: Cook] In fact, the Mayo Clinic confirms that decreased sunlight in the winter months, which is especially dramatic for individuals who travel or live further from the equator, is a large risk factor of SAD.

Sunlight is important factor in preventing depression, because it passes through our eyes and into the hypothalamus of our brain which regulates our sleep-wake cycles; therefore, when light is bright and plentiful (as in the summer months) our sleep-wake cycles are well regulated and help protect from chemical imbalances. [Source: SADA] It is thought that the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin become imbalanced in the brain during the winter months. [Source: NAMI]

Other risk factors noted by The MayoClinic are having a family history of SAD and having clinical depression or bipolar disorder, which may increase the likelihood that seasonal changes worsen the conditions. Age, too, may play a role: being between 18 and 30 years old seems to be the most common age range of onset.[Source: Mental Health America]

Another risk factor of SAD is gender: Women are much more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men, but when men are diagnosed the symptoms tend to be more severe. [Source: Mayo]

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Light therapy is used to treat people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive, mental condition believed to be caused from sunlight and vitamin D deprivation.
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If you aren't able to simply jet off to New Zealand (like many of us), or live in sunny California, what can be done about SAD?

First, get an official evaluation by a medical or psychological professional. This is important because diagnosis of SAD can be complicated, as there are many symptoms of SAD in common with other types of depression. [Source: Mayo] Professionals will want to ensure that you are not experiencing severe depression symptoms that can lead to suicidal thoughts. They will also want to hear if you have a past depression history with a seasonal pattern, so don't forget to look back at whether you were feeling depressed in previous fall/winter seasons too. Keep in mind that only a professional can customize appropriate treatments for you. Some treatments, such as light therapy, are not always appropriate for individuals who have a history of bipolar symptoms, as it can trigger mania. [Source: Mayo].

If light therapy, also called phototherapy, is recommended, it has been shown to work in about 80 to 90 percent of SAD cases. [Source: SADA] During light therapy, you sit near a "light box" which is a special lamp that emits light simulating sunlight. [Source: Mayo] Light therapy boxes can be used in the convenience of your own home or office; typically, the duration of light therapy is 30 minutes to an hour daily. [Source: SADA]

Treatment providers may also recommend a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, or antidepressant medications in addition to or independently from light therapy. [Source: NAMI]

There is also evidence that certain lifestyle changes and adjustments can help SAD symptoms, such as getting plenty of exercise, spending time outdoors (getting more sunlight), and making home and office environments brighter. [Source: Mayo] These lifestyle changes will likely not be enough to fully treat SAD though, unless you are instead experiencing the lesser, winter blues. [Source: WVU]

Want to be an overachiever? Check out the helpful resources below for more information about SAD.

  • Blog: Sessions To Go with Dr. Nicole Joseph. "Beat the Winter Blues." January 18, 2013. Retrieved November 24, 2013 from: http://blogs.discovery.com/dr-nicole-joseph/2013/01/beat-the-winter-blues.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=symptoms
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Treatments and Drugs." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Seasonal Affective Disorder." December 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=23051
  • Read: "Winter Blues" by Norman Rosenthal (The father of SAD), latest edition published in 1998.
  • The SAD Association Homepage. Accessed November 22, 2013 from: http://www.sada.org.uk/symptoms-1.html

Related Articles

  • 5 Home Remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Can certain foods help with SAD?
  • Types of Depression

Sources

  • American Journal of Psychiatry. "Seasonal Affective Disorder." January 2005. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=101009
  • Cook, B. "Interview With Barbara Hambly." Andromeda Space Ways Website. December 25, 2005. Retrieved November 21, 2013from: http://www.andromedaspaceways.com/inter_0002.htm
  • Dickinson, Emily. There's a certain Slant of light. Poetry X, Edited by Jough Dempsey. August 25, 2004. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2013 from http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/3364/
  • Magnusson A. An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. March 2000. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10721866
  • Mayo Clinic. "Light Therapy." March 20, 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/light-therapy/MY00195
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Causes." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Lifestyle and Home Remedies." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Risk Factors." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=risk-factors
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Tests and Diagnosis." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=tests-and-diagnosis
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=symptoms
  • Mayo Clinic. "Seasonal Affective Disorder: Treatments and Drugs." September 22, 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from:http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  • McCafferty, N. "Be Glad, Not SAD. Coping with SAD." OK! Magazine. February 2, 2010. Retrived November 22, 2013 from: http://www.ok.co.uk/health/Be-glad-not-sad-Coping-with-SAD
  • Mental Health America. Seasonal Affective Disorder. 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.nmha.org/go/sad
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Seasonal Affective Disorder." December 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=23051
  • Galluzzo, M. OK! Magazine "Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder: Don't be SAD." January 31, 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.ok.co.uk/health/Health-Seasonal-Affective-Disorder
  • Scaveloa. InfoBarrel Entertainment. "Famous People with Seasonal Affective Disorder." December 4, 2011. Edited November 13, 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.infobarrel.com/Famous_People_with_Seasonal_Affective_Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder Association. "Symptoms." 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.sada.org.uk/symptoms.html
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder Association. "Treatment." 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.sada.org.uk/treatment.html
  • Today. "Rosie Turns Depression Treatment on its Head" March 9, 2007. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://www.today.com/id/17541917
  • West Virginia University. "Is it Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?" 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013 from: http://well.wvu.edu/articles/is_it_the_winter_blues_or_seasonal_affective_disorder