I Think I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder

I think I may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. What is it and how can I get better?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a mood disorder that includes depression symptoms when there is typically less sunlight (such as now,  the fall and winter) which improves completely when the sun is out more often again (spring and summer).

The most common symptoms include: feeling very tired a lot; feeling sad most of the time; loss of interest or pleasure in activities that you would normally enjoy; sleeping more than you normally would; difficulty concentrating; craving foods with more starches or foods that are sweet; and gaining weight (at least 5% of your body weight). Some people also experience thoughts of death or suicide.

Most people experience SAD to some extent, especially in places where winter lasts longer and is accompanied by cloudy skies, shorter days/longer nights, and where the summers are sunnier and the days are longer. This drastic change in sunlight and weather makes it harder to adjust to the changing seasons. The “winter blues” is the term used for people who experience SAD to a lesser degree. Women tend to experience SAD at a higher rate, as do people between the ages of 15 and 55.

If you know you have a harder time during the fall/winter months, have some or all of the symptoms listed, and find that you are struggling in major area(s) of your life, such as school, work, or relationships, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about seeing a counselor or call a counselor on your own. If you are having thoughts of death or suicide, you should contact your doctor, mental health professional, or crisis agency immediately.

The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy, which includes daily use of bright, artificial light that a person uses throughout the fall/winter months and stops using when the spring arrives. Although light boxes are usually available without a prescription, the use should be monitored by a  professional because the amount of light needs to be adjusted for each person and there are some side effects, like eye strain, headache, and feeling agitated. New studies have found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in either an individual or group therapy format actually works just as well as (if not better than) light therapy and that the skills learned in CBT help manage SAD in the long-term more than light therapy. Luckily, ThedaCare Behavioral Health has helpful clinicians trained in CBT and offers two CBT groups year round! Medication is also an option, but works the best if you add some talk-therapy with it.

By Neeley Welch, Licensed Mental Health Clinician, ThedaCare Behavioral Health, Menasha.