What is Seasonal Affective Disorder & How is it Treated?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The type of depression that is associated with season shift is attributed to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This disorder starts and ends, approximately at the same time every year. The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder usually start in the fall and continue through the winter. Usual symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are loss of energy and drastic mood changes. However, some people experience these symptoms in spring and early summer months.

Psychotherapy and phototherapy (light therapy) are used in treating seasonal affective disorder. Additionally, some medications are prescribed to help combat seasonal affective disorder.

People often neglect the changes in mood, simply associating it to changes in temperature and weather. One should strive to keep their motivation and energy level high through all seasons.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorde

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Medical professionals still have not pinpointed the specific cause of seasonal affective disorder. The only managed to narrow it down to three possible causes:

  • Biological clock (circadian rhythm): Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder is usually attributed to the reduced level of sunlight in late fall and early winter months.
  • Decreased level of sunlight may derange one’s internal clock and, hence, induce depression.
  • Reduced serotonin levels can cause seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects mood. Reduced levels of sunlight cause drop in serotonin, hence causing depression.
  • Unbalanced melatonin levels can cause seasonal affective disorder. Melatonin is a brain chemical that plays a role in sleeping patterns. The changes in season can derange the balance and levels of melatonin in body hence inducing the changes in mood and depression.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

As mentioned before, most people get early symptoms of seasonal affective disorder late in the year, usually in late fall or early winter. However those people who get the symptoms earlier in the year, spring or summer, often experience the same or similar mood changes and energy depletion. The symptoms usually start in milder manner but progressively become stronger and more severe.

One can categorize Seasonal Affective Disorder as a subtype of major depression that is associated with seasons changing. If one experiences following symptoms of major depression, one might be suffering from Seasonal affective disorder:

  • Daily long depression, repeatedly through the week is seen in seasonal affective disorder.
  • Feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Experiencing low energy
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Appetite and weight loss
  • Loss of interest
  • Feeling agitated
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Loss of concentration
  • Suicidal thoughts

The following symptoms are attributed to winter depression, also known as winter seasonal affective disorder:

  • Feeling tired
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling irritated
  • Feeling antisocial
  • Having trouble with rejection
  • Having leaden feeling in legs and arms
  • Experiencing craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Having trouble waking up
  • Putting on weight is also a symptom of winter seasonal affective disorder.

The following symptoms are attributed to summer depression, also known as summer seasonal affective disorder:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Having trouble falling asleep is seen in summer seasonal affective disorder
  • Loss of weight
  • Feeling agitated and anxious
  • Depression.

For people with bipolar disorder, spring and summer may induce symptoms of mania and hypomania, and winter and fall may induce severe symptoms of depression.

Diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Several evaluations and diagnosis may be performed by your medical specialist so they may notice the early symptoms. Some of these diagnoses for seasonal affective disorder are:

  • Physical Exam. Depression in general is heavily associated with poor physical health. By conducting the physical exam, your medical specialist may conclude if one’s poor physical health and shape is associated with seasonal affective disorder.
  • Lab tests. Usually doctors perform blood test called complete blood count (CBC) or examine one’s thyroid so they can make sure it functions properly.
  • Psychological Evaluation. Doctors are psychiatrists may perform several psychological evaluations to examine the state of one’s mental health. By filling out questionnaires and forms about the state of one’s mental health, medical specialist may find out if one has some mental issues usually associated with the seasonal affective disorder.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered by many as a subtype of bipolar disorder or major depression. Because of the similar symptoms of other types of depression, more often than not, seasonal affective disorder is not easily diagnosed.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?

Two kinds of therapies are used in treating seasonal affective disorder: light therapy and psychotherapy. These therapies are often reinforced with medications. If one has bipolar disorder, they must tell their medical specialist, so they can prescribe proper medication and therapy. One should not that both of these therapies may induce manic episode.

Light Therapy for Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

Also known as phototherapy the light therapy is used as an effective way to treat seasonal affective disorder. Patient sits couple of feet from a light therapy box. Patient is then exposed to bright light. The idea behind is for the therapy to mimic the outdoor light so it triggers changes in brain chemicals that are responsible for mood.

Another Way to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder is Psychotherapy

Also known as talk therapy, psychotherapy for treating seasonal affective disorder can help the patient with:

  • Identification of negative thoughts, and changing behaviors that may induce depression
  • Learning to manage seasonal affective disorder
  • Learning to cope with stress.

Medications for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If patient experiences severe symptoms, antidepressant treatment is used. Antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin) helps with depressive episodes with patients that have history of seasonal affective disorder. Other established antidepressants may be used in treatment of the disorder.

Lifestyle Changes for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Below mentioned are some of the life style changes and home remedies for seasonal affective disorder:

  • A good lifestyle change is to make your environment sunnier and brighter. Allow sunlight to enter the room by ensuring nothing block your windows. One should make sure to sit closer to windows if they are obligated to sit indoors for a longer period of time.
  • Going outside helps with receiving the natural sunlight, fresh air, different smells and aromas associated with every season respectively. Getting early in the morning and going outside helps one feel much more energetic and helps with seasonal affective disorder.
  • Exercise helps with reducing stress and anxiety. Being fit and healthy helps with self-image, increases confidence and helps with seasonal affective disorder.

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

The following steps can help you cope better with seasonal affective disorder:

  • Attend therapy as appointed, and take your medications as planned for proper coping.
  • Get regular physical activity, exercise, but also remember to relax and unwind. Eat healthier, reduce alcohol intake, and do not take drugs.
  • Try to learn ways to reduce your stress levels for effective coping with seasonal affective disorder. Stress leads to depression, unhealthy eating, overeating, bad thoughts and behaviors.
  • Try to rekindle old friendships, meet new people. Humans are social species, it helps when you are surrounded by those who think alike. They can offer support, brighten your day, and help you with your problems.
  • If you have winter seasonal affective disorder, try taking a trip to sunnier locations. If you have summer seasonal affective disorder, do the opposite.

Complications of Seasonal Affective Disorder

One should take the signs of seasonal affective disorder seriously. People often neglect and shun the symptoms. If not treated early, seasonal affective disorder can get worse and have more dangerous complications such as:

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Complete social withdrawal
  • Work and school related problems
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Prevention of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Although there is no established way to completely prevent the development of seasonal affective disorder, one can take steps and initiative to manage those symptoms. Even though the symptoms will not be completely gone, one can prevent them from worsening.

Some patients often start battling the symptoms before the time of the year they usually start appearing. By doing this they ease the transition period and help reduce the symptoms. They often continue the treatment well pass a season seasonal affective disorder starts to appear. Some people, with more severe symptoms, need treatments and therapies through the year.

If one can control the symptoms before they worsen, they can prevent serious changes in mood, loss of appetite, and depletion of energy levels.

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 5, 2017

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