>U Mom Knows Best: Understanding and Recognizing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Monday, August 21, 2023

Understanding and Recognizing Seasonal Affective Disorder

 Seasonal affective disorder can have a negative effect on your mood and ability to function during certain seasons. Here’s what you should know about it. 

 ​Based on numbers by the American Psychiatric Association, seasonal affective disorder is a condition that affects around 5 percent of US adults. In most cases, it lasts around 40 percent of the year, and it has been found to affect women at higher rates than men. But what is this condition? And is it different from what people normally call the ‘winter blues?’ 

 To recognize this depressive disorder, you need to understand it. So, let’s discuss its signs and symptoms, causes, and treatment options, among other things. 

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

 According to the APA’s fifth edition of the diagnostic statistical manual, it’s a form of depression commonly referred to as seasonal depression. Specifically, it’s a major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns. 

  As winter approaches, it’s common for people to experience low moods because the days tend to get shorter and the nights get longer. However, some people have these mood changes much more severely. This has a major effect on how they feel, think, and perform everyday activities. 

 When symptoms begin around early fall or winter and alleviate as spring rolls around, it’s winter depression or winter-pattern SAD. On the other hand, some people have depressive episodes during the spring and summer months. This is summer depression or summer-pattern SAD, and it’s less common.


Signs and Symptoms 

 Rather than a separate disorder on its own, seasonal affective disorder is a type of major depression. It’s characterized by its recurrent pattern defined by changing seasons, with symptoms occurring for a period of 4 to 5 months each year. Consequently, it features the same signs and symptoms as major depression, along with a few specific symptoms that differentiate it from major depression.

These include: 

 Low mood for most of the day and almost every day 

 Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities 

 Sudden changes in weight and appetite 

 Change in sleeping habits 

 Feelings of fatigue and agitation 

 Low energy levels 

 Poor concentration 

 Feelings of worthlessness 

 Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death 

These are the common symptoms of a major depressive episode, and it differentiates itself from SAD because it’s not restricted to a specific time of the year. To know more about depressive episodes, visit  urpbehavioralhealth.com

With winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder, you develop specific symptoms such as: 

 Hypersomnia 

 Overeating with a focus on carbohydrate-rich foods 

 Withdrawing from social activities 

 Weight gain 

With summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder, specific symptoms include: 

 Anxiety 

 Lack of appetite 

 Inability to fall asleep (insomnia)

 Feeling restless and agitated 

Potential Causes 

Researchers have yet to narrow down a specific cause for seasonal affective disorder, but there are

certain theories. 

 Changes in circadian rhythm: Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder may occur due to low levels of sunlight during the fall and winter months. It can affect your circadian rhythm (the body's internal clock), causing feelings of depression. 

Low serotonin levels: Research shows that exposure to light has an effect on the binding of serotonin at the 1A  receptor site. Therefore, it’s possible that seasonal affective disorder occurs due to reduced exposure to sunlight during the winter months.  

Disruption in melatonin: The pineal gland is responsible for the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep. Changes in light exposure based on seasons can affect the pineal gland’s ability to function, which alters melatonin production. This, in turn, causes changes in sleeping patterns and mood. 

Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder 

The condition affects women at a higher rate than men, with some studies showing that women have a  1.5 times higher prevalence. An assessment of SAD-focused research states that it occurs four times more often in women than in men. Moreover, the age of onset is somewhere between 18 and 30 years. That being said, there are other risk factors, such as: 

 Having family members with SAD: Family and twin studies show that seasonal affective disorder has a genetic component. So, if you have a close family member with the condition, it’s possible that you’ll develop it as well. 

 Having a pre-existing mood disorder: If you have a mood disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder, symptoms may worsen due to a change in seasons. 

 Vitamin D deficiency: Research indicates a possible link between vitamin D deficiency and feelings of depression. Moreover, one review involving different people with depression shows that symptoms improved after taking vitamin D supplements.  

 Living away from the equator: Countries that are nearer to the equator get more sunlight than countries farther away from it. People who live in regions far away from the equator, or relocate to such places, have a higher risk of developing seasonal affective disorder. 

Treatment Options 

 There are different treatments available for people with seasonal affective disorder. These differ based on the potential cause of the disorder, and they can be used separately or in combination. 

Vitamin D Supplements 

 When you present with depression-like symptoms that are recurrent during specific times of the year, your physician may recommend a test to check your vitamin D levels. If they’re low, it indicates a potential cause for your seasonal pattern of low mood. In this case, they’ll prescribe vitamin supplements to see if they can improve your symptoms. 


 If the reason for your depressive symptoms is a disturbance in serotonin levels, your psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressants. Specifically, they’ll prescribe SSRIs to alleviate a mood disturbance when the season changes. 


 Also known as talk therapy, this involves the therapist adopting a specific approach, like cognitive behavioral therapy. Using the approach, they teach you how to cope with difficult situations. CBT has been adapted for clients with SAD, and it focuses on identifying negative thoughts about the season and replacing them with positive ones. 

Light Therapy 

 This is the earliest treatment for seasonal affective disorder, which involves exposing you to bright light on a regular basis. It helps alleviate the low mood that occurs as a result of low sunlight exposure. 


 Despite being a debilitating disorder, many people brush off seasonal affective disorder as the ‘winter   blues.’  It includes the main symptoms of major depression, along with SAD-specific symptoms. SAD can occur due to different potential causes, like a change in your circadian rhythm or a vitamin D deficiency. Similarly, people have a higher risk of developing it if it runs in the family or if they live farther from the equator. So, if you think the above-mentioned symptoms and risk factors could apply to you, it’s best to see a mental health professional. 

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