Could You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Montreal in winter

Looking out of my office window on this cold January day, I see gray skies and snow piled up in the New York City streets. For some, this kind of winter weather is a bummer only because it snarls traffic, requires shoveling and makes it harder to climb out of a warm bed. But for up to 10% of Americans, the long winter can spell a much more serious kind of trouble in the form of seasonal affective disorder.

If you tend to feel down and depressed during the winter, don’t just brush it off as “the blues” – seasonal affective disorder (which carries the apt acronym SAD), is a very real subtype of depression. As opposed to episodes of regular depression, which can occur unpredictably any time of the year, SAD tends to worsen predictably during a particular season and then go into remission for the remainder of the year.

There are two main forms of SAD – fall-onset SAD, which starts in late fall or early winter and is by far the most common, and summer-onset SAD. In the Northern Hemisphere, you are more likely to suffer from SAD if you live in the north where days are shorter, especially if you’ve moved there from a more southern location.

The symptoms of SAD can vary, and include at least five typical symptoms of depression, which are:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Disruptions in normal sleep
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Moving or fidgeting more or less than usual
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Thoughts of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms that tend to be more prominent in fall-onset SAD are sleeping more than usual, increased appetite (especially for carbohydrates), increasing weight, irritability, trouble in your relationships and feeling like your arms and legs are heavy and “leaden.” In contrast, spring-onset SAD tends to feature insomnia, decreased appetite and weight loss.

The cause of SAD is not well understood, though decreased daylight may be at least partially to blame and there may also be a genetic component. Studies suggest that levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter important for regulating mood, vary by season and in response to sunlight and appear to be low in people who suffer from SAD.

If you have symptoms of SAD and they are interfering with how you live your life, take them seriously. Talk to your doctor to see if you qualify for the SAD diagnosis and to talk about treatment options. In your day-to-day life, maintain a regular sleep schedule and try to maximize your exposure to daylight by waking up early enough to take advantage of the sun, opening your curtains first thing, and going outside (but be sure to avoid the tanning salon, which is not a safe or recommended treatment). You can also keep your interior environment bright with lamps and bright colors.

Effective professional treatments can include talk therapy, anti-depressant medications and light therapy, in which patients are exposed to a particular type of light for 10 to 90 minutes a day. With a little help, you can brighten up your winter and enter spring with a smile.