Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder - Southwest EAP

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

When winter’s doldrums set in, it’s common for many of us to slip into the blues and not really understand why. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that occurs during a particular season of the year, typically fall and winter, when the days are shortest and we don’t see as much sunlight.

SAD can affect anyone, although, according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first described the condition in 1984, SAD occurs four times as much in women as men, and almost 10 times more frequently in people who live further north of the equator.

Those most affected are typically people in their late teens, 20s, and 30s, with the majority being women in their 30s. Older adults are less likely to develop it. The depression is frequently moderate to major, and SAD sufferers frequently have other family members with depression.

Varying levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin are believed to play a role in SAD. Since SAD occurs when there is less natural sunlight, it’s believed that the sleep hormone melatonin, which has been linked to depression, also may play a role. The body makes more melatonin in the dark, so the shorter, grayer days of winter have a tendency to increase melatonin levels.

This type of winter depression is typically accompanied by social withdrawal, increased sleep, and weight gain, and it predictably returns every year in seasonal affective disorder. Unsurprisingly, this depression generally lifts during spring and summer when the days start getting longer.

What to Do if You Have SAD

People with a mild case of SAD can ease symptoms by increasing the time they are exposed to sunlight during the day. Spending time outdoors each day and getting regular outdoor exercise are two effective methods to combat SAD. Taking vitamin D supplements has also been shown to help prevent and improve seasonal depression.

For more severe cases, doctors may prescribe light therapy and possibly antidepressants. Light therapy involves exposure to very bright, full-spectrum fluorescent light for a certain amount of time each morning.

To help combat the blues during the fall and winter, try to get regular exercise and spend time outside each day. Rearrange the furniture in your home and workspace and open the blinds or curtains to take advantage of as much sunlight in the fall and winter as possible. Talk to us at Southwest EAP or call your doctor if you have signs or symptoms of SAD that are significant enough to interfere with your daily life. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional trained to treat patients with SAD.

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