Seasonal SADness

November 14, 2019

The dark, freezing months are upon us. While some people are ready to cozy up and be charmed by the comforts of winter, others feel a significant sadness this time of year.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a seasonal depression that usually occurs in the late fall and winter and, thankfully, improves with the return of spring. About half a million Americans suffer from winter SAD, while 10% to 20% may suffer from a milder form of the wintertime blues.1 “SAD is a common problem that many members, unfortunately, experience during the darkest, coldest winter months,” explains Dr. Christopher Dennis, psychiatrist and clinical behavioral health leader at Teladoc Health.

If you feel down and isolated around the same time every year—with a hankering to hibernate—that persistent pattern can be frustrating or overwhelming. “The good news is there are several effective ways to manage this condition,” Dr. Dennis says. Read on to find out if you could be suffering from SAD, and learn real ways to cope.

How you can tell if you have it

SAD is not considered a separate disorder, Dr. Dennis explains, but rather is a type of depression. So, many signs of SAD are in line with regular depressive symptoms, but occur in a seasonal pattern. These include feeling hopeless or worthless, low energy, loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities, sleeping problems, difficulty concentrating, feeling agitated, and thoughts of death or suicide.2 Winter SAD, specifically, also brings with it symptoms that include:2

  • Fatigue
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Social withdrawal

If you’re hibernating and having depressive thoughts along with other symptoms above, the shorter daylight hours may be knocking your biological clock or circadian rhythms out of whack. It’s time to start thinking about how to get back on track.

What puts you at greater risk

SAD can happen to anyone, but you’re at higher risk if you live in a colder climate far from the equator. Only 1% of people in Florida experience SAD, while 9% of those in Alaska or New England suffer from it.2 Usually SAD first begins in young adults, when someone is between 18 and 30 years old.3 Females get a SAD diagnosis four times more often than men.2

History is also an important indicator for this seasonal depression. If someone in your immediate family experiences these downward patterns, you are more likely to develop SAD yourself. Your symptoms may also become worse if you’ve previously had depression or bipolar disorder. Production issues with either melatonin or vitamin D could also contribute to symptoms of tiredness or depression.

How you can manage it

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom until spring’s bloom. There are effective treatments—often used in a combination method—that can improve SAD symptoms and help you enjoy life again. A Teladoc therapist can help you decide which of the following strategies may work best for you:

  • Light therapy. Since wintertime SAD rears its ugly head when we’re experiencing fewer daylight hours, experts believe that symptoms improve with exposure to light. Try sitting in front of a light box that emits bright, artificial light (at 10,000 lux) for 20 to 60 minutes daily.2 You can also spend more time outdoors in the sunlight—ideally while you are exercising—which can help reduce depressive symptoms. Even sitting next to a window at work can be beneficial if you’re not getting enough sunlight.
  • Talk therapy. Speaking with a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you rework negative thoughts into more positive ones. By engaging with a trusted support professional, you can also start adding more joy-seeking activities to your life, and resolve those past difficulties that may resurface with SAD symptoms.
  • Medication or supplements. For people who repeatedly experience SAD, antidepressants may help. There are many selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) on the market, so you’ll need to talk to a psychiatrist about which one may be right for you and your disorder. Your doctor also may suggest vitamin D supplements. These interventions are recommended on a case-by-case basis.

The most important thing to know if you’re experiencing SAD this season is that we’re here to help. Our U.S. board-certified therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists are available through the Web or mobile app. We always start by listening so that we can understand your difficulties and help you manage them better. There’s no reason to put off hope for a better tomorrow: Act now for a brighter day.

References

1https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression
2https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
3https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder

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