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Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Julie Sauers, PsyD

Have you noticed generally lower energy, and are feeling sad more often now that the days are shorter and the weather is colder? If so, you may have a mood disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression triggered by circumstances connected to seasonal changes (e.g. fewer hours of sunlight, etc.), but it is more than just the winter blues. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD more commonly starts in the fall or winter, and often lasts until April or May. According to Psychology Today, SAD affects nearly 10 million Americans, and it is four times more common in women than men.

Symptoms include:

  • Pervasive sadness with possible hopelessness
  • Avoidance of social situations and/or increased sensitivity to social rejection
  • Body aches
  • Cravings for carbohydrates and/or overeating 
  • Decreased activity level
  • Fatigue and daytime sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble concentrating and sleeping
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight gain

The cause of SAD is still debated among experts, but some research suggests that disruptions of your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) associated with the change in amount of daylight, resulting in more production of melatonin (a hormone that regulate the sleep-wake cycle), is significantly responsible for triggering SAD symptoms. Other research offers evidence that dysregulated serotonin levels and/or low Vitamin D levels are primarily responsible for SAD. Further, if you have a family history or have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, you are more susceptible to suffer from SAD.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

You may not think you need medical attention, but if SAD is causing you distress or difficulties in your everyday functions, you should see your doctor because there are treatments available. Here are some treatment options your health care provider can help you explore in order to cope with SAD:

  • Exercise regularly – Exercise can help alleviate SAD symptoms, as it does with other forms of depression. Exercising outdoors during the day can be even more helpful because it gets you out into the daylight.
  • Increase vitamin D – If you live in the Northeast, you can’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone during the winter months when the sun is lower in the sky. The recommended daily allowance for vitamin D is 600 IUs per day. If you are over the age of 70, you should try to get 800 IUs per day. Talk to your doctor about testing your vitamin D levels and if supplements would be right for you.
  • Light therapy – Getting enough light is important to combat the effects of SAD. Try to get outside as much possible during the day and take advantage of what sunlight is available. Light therapy boxes can also help as they mimic sunshine. The light from the therapy boxes is brighter than regular light bulbs. To help with SAD symptoms, you should sit in front of a lightbox for about 30 minutes a day.
  • Aromatherapy – Essential oils can have an impact on the area of the brain responsible for controlling moods and influences sleep and appetite. 
  • It is important to remember that SAD is a form of depression. If you experience symptoms and it is affecting your quality of life, talk to your primary care provider or a mental health professional as effective treatments are available.

Learn more about Behavioral Health Services at UPMC.