Seasonal Affective Disorder - Symptoms and Treatments

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Many of us feel the February blues. It’s dark and cold outside and the weather echoes in our moods. For most people these feelings of sadness or depression are temporary, but for others, they are very intense. There is some anecdotal evidence that this year many people who are suffering from some form of depression or mental health issues from the COVID-19 pandemic are feeling SAD more. Some people who have escaped SAD in previous years are suffering this year.

Common Signs and Symptoms of SAD

Many of the symptoms are the same as for major depression, however, the signs of SAD appear and disappear at the same time every year. This timing coincides with the fall or winter as days shorten, sunlight hours decrease, and the time indoors increases.

Signs:

  • A major sad or despairing mood that is present most days and lasts most of the day
  • The feelings go on for two weeks or more
  • The feelings interfere or impact your work performance, school performance or social relationships
  • Some people find their appetite is impacted
  • Some people gain or lose noticeable weight
  • Sleep disorders are common
  • You may have a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities (work, hobbies, friends, sex)
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Fatigue
  • Memory, decision making, and concentration may be impaired
  • Crying easily
  • Suicidal ideation

Triggers

SAD is thought to be triggered by changes in the amount of sunlight experienced by people. Researchers believe that the changes in light can disrupt your internal clock and that it may also upset your serotonin and dopamine levels.

Women and young people are more likely to suffer from SAD. The farther one lives from the equator the more common the condition is.

Treatment

The first line of treatment is light therapy. Special bright light devices can be used indoors to help increase your exposure to light. Some people report eye strain, nausea, and headaches from light therapy.

Exercise and increasing time outdoors is also prescribed.

Other treatments include medications, and increasingly invasive medical treatments like ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, rTMS transcranial magnetic stimulation, or MST (magnetic seizure therapy). Some people require combinations of therapy to recover.