According to the Mayo Clinic, “seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year”. In order to be officially diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, an individual must meet the criteria for major depression aligned with specific seasons for a minimum of two years. For most people, seasonal affective disorder symptoms begin to surface in the fall, continue into the winter months and subside somewhat during the spring and summer months. However, some people experience symptoms in spring and summer and find relief in the winter months. This is far less common than winter-onset seasonal affective disorder, and is not as well understood by researchers.
Seasonal affective disorder affects an estimated 10 million Americans to varying degrees of severity. Factors including gender, age, family history, previously diagnosed depression or bipolar disorder and geographic location can all impact how individuals experience seasonal affective disorder. Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder than men, but men often report experiencing more intense symptoms. Most cases of seasonal affective disorder are seen in individuals between the ages of 18 and 30, and are less common in older demographics. People who have a family history of psychiatric disorders typically report symptoms of seasonal affective disorder at higher rates than those who do not.
The cause of seasonal affective disorder is not yet fully understood, however; there are factors that can increase your likelihood of experiencing it. Research shows that your circadian rhythm, or biological clock, can be disrupted by reduced levels of sunlight and contribute to winter-onset seasonal affective disorder. This causes a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter which affects mood. The change in season can also trigger a shift in melatonin levels which impacts sleeping patterns and your mood.
Symptoms of this disorder can include irritability, low energy, sudden weight gain, depression, insomnia, changes in appetite and increased levels of anxiety. While many of these symptoms are not a cause for alarm, if they are observed for multiple days or cause you to lose interest in activities that you typically enjoy, it may be time to seek professional guidance. Otherwise seasonal affective disorder can contribute to social withdrawal, problems in work or school, substance abuse and thoughts about self-harm. Phototherapy (light therapy) counseling, vitamin D supplements and, in some cases, other forms of medication, can be used to alleviate patients’ symptoms.
Overall, it is important to be aware of your mood shifts as well as other changes in your mental and physical well-being as the seasons change and to make it a priority to seek help if needed. Seasonal affective disorder can become more severe if left untreated for an extended period of time. Taking care of your well-being can take time, but paying attention to trends in your mood can prevent more serious complications from coming up down the road which may have larger impacts on your life.