Are you feeling SAD? Identifying Seasonal Affective Disorder

Sinay Butler, Counselor
Dragonfly Wellness & Education Center

In the North, we experience an ever-changing relationship with the sun. During summer, daylight lasts for nearly 16 hours. We start our days early, working in our gardens and crop fields. We fish, camp, play and work long days. But in the winter, we are reduced to half that amount of daylight. Nights are long and chilly. During winter, we check our supply of firewood and canned goods and make sure the snow plow and generators are serviced. We go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. While this ever-changing dance we have with the sun is familiar to Northerners, it can also impact how we feel. For some, winter can be a welcomed respite from the busyness of summer, but for many, seriously reduced sunlight can have a very negative impact on our mental health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common condition affecting an estimated three million people a year in the United States. The symptoms usually begin and end about the same time every year. For some, symptoms start in the fall and continue into winter. For others, depression can start in the spring or early summer, but that is less common. Winter onset of SAD may include oversleeping, craving carbohydrates, gaining weight, and feeling tired or having low energy. Spring and summer SAD may include having trouble sleeping, having a poor appetite, losing weight, and feeling agitated or having anxiety.

The symptoms of SAD are very similar to depression and include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Problems with sleeping: too much or not enough sleep
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or irritated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide

While we don’t really know what causes SAD, one factor may be a change in circadian rhythm due to reduced sunlight. Changes in sunlight can disrupt our biological clocks. Reduced or increased sunlight can cause a change in brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that affect mood. Also affected by sunlight are serotonin and melatonin, which play a strong role in mood regulation.

If left untreated, SAD can be disruptive to life by causing people to withdraw from social interactions or create problems at work or school. SAD can worsen other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. SAD can worsen suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

To help diagnose SAD, it is important to schedule a physical exam with your doctor and identify any underlying health concerns. It is important to note that people who live in the north often have vitamin deficiencies, which can greatly impact mood. Thyroid issues, as well as other endocrine disorders can also affect mood and social functioning. Those issues should be addressed by a medical professional. Sometimes medication is needed. Light therapy, which mimics sunlight, is one of the most widely used treatments for SAD. Aerobic exercise has also been shown to have a positive effect on reducing the symptoms of SAD.

If someone is still struggling with depression after ruling out or identifying any underlying medical issues, seeing a mental health professional can be very helpful. Best practices are a combination of medical and behavioral health (counseling) treatments. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be very effective in reducing symptoms and in long-term management of SAD. CBT can be used to address negative thinking and behaviors that may be contributing to SAD. Therapists can work with clients to help develop healthier ways to manage thinking, behaviors, and stress, as well helping clients develop an understanding of the mind-body connection. Therapists at Dragonfly Wellness and Education Center can provide the support needed to learn how to manage SAD or other mental health issues. Call (509) 724-0221 to set up an appointment.