Written by Cathy Cassata
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of recurrent depression that tends to come on during the fall and winter months and go away during the spring and summer months.
- About 5 percent of adults in the United States experience SAD, and it typically lasts about 40 percent of the year, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
- A mental health professional can treat SAD.
While fall brings about colorful leaves and cooler weather, it can also cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of recurrent depression that tends to come and go with the seasons.
Despite its acronym, SAD is more than simply feeling sad.
Also called seasonal depression or winter depression, SAD usually starts in the late fall or early winter, and typically subsides by spring and summer.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) explains that SAD may arise from a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by fewer hours of daylight and less sunlight, which can shift the biological internal clock, causing disruption of our daily schedules.
Reduced levels of sunlight can also affect serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and has been linked to depression. Given sunlight’s role in the condition, where you live is one of the primary risk factors of SAD.
“The further away from the equator, the higher the incidences of seasonal affective disorder. Someone who lives in Canada is at higher risk of developing this condition than someone who lives in Florida,” Dr. Luis Allen, psychiatrist and medical director of the AdventHealth’s Center of Behavioral Health, told Healthline.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the following factors can increase your risk for SAD:
- being female
- being a young adult
- having a family history of depression
- having a personal history of depression or bipolar disorder
The pandemic’s effect on SAD
In addition to the typical risk factors, the pandemic may play a part in the occurrence of SAD this year. Some experts believe the condition may be more prominent due to the stresses of COVID-19.
“COVID has brought major life changes, traumas, and stresses to a great number of people — not to mention the physical illnesses for those positively affected by the virus. This could become a serious concern for those with a history of SAD, particularly in the northern parts of our country and even more so in the areas most affected by the pandemic,” Dayry Hulkow, primary therapist at Vista Pines Health, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility, told Healthline.
Because social withdrawal is one of the most common signs of SAD, Hulkow says physical distancing may pose an increased risk during the months to come.
Therapist Sharnade George agrees.
“The restrictions on leisure and outdoor facilities, no occasions to get outside of the house, people working from home and having less time outdoors, and in addition to this being told by the government ‘Stay at home and stay safe’ [when], for many people, staying at home may not feel like a place of safety, particularly if they experience SAD,” she told Healthline.
In addition to social withdrawal, the NIH indicates that other common signs and symptoms of SAD include:
- low energy
- excessive sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- weight gain
- craving for carbohydrates
The signs and symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression because SAD is a form of depression.
“Individuals presenting with changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a decrease in energy level, as well as a decrease in interest in their usual activity, focus, and concentration, are significantly affected. A major difference of this disorder is in its ability to become predictable, given it happens at certain specific times of the year,” Allen said.CORONAVIRUS UPDATESStay on top of the COVID-19 pandemic
How to prevent and treat SAD
If you’ve experienced SAD in the past, have a history of depression or depressive disorders, or have experienced increased stresses and major life changes due to the pandemic, Hulkow says to make practicing self-care a priority this fall.
“Emotional disturbances may or may not always be prevented. However, there are many preventive measures that can help safeguard our mental health and well-being. Things such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep are always important aspects of daily self-care practices,” he said.
Hulkow added that “maintaining meaningful connections with close family and friends can help prevent or minimize the prevalence of SAD, as well as other mental health conditions.”
Mental Health America states that increasing your amount of light at home, spending more time outside, and visiting climates that have more sun are also forms of prevention.
When it comes to preventive measures, George says to think of preparation like you might for the flu season.
“Before the winter seasons, we normally buy our medicines or natural resources and prepare ourselves to take extra care of our immune system so when winter arrives, we already have taken the right safety measures to prevent any flu or cold. This can also be implemented for people who suffer with SAD [by] ensuring [they have safety measures in place that] relate to their symptoms,” she said.
The best form of preparation may be connecting with a mental health professional who can determine the appropriate treatment for you.
Treatment might include vitamin D supplementation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medications, such as antidepressant selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Light therapy is also helpful for some people. It involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits bright light while filtering out ultraviolet rays.
According to the APA, light therapy typically involves sitting in front of the box for at least 20 minutes a day in the morning during fall and winter months.
“The combination of these different treatment modalities becomes more effective in the treatment of the condition,” Allen said. “The earlier the intervention the better, as it helps to decrease the impact on individual’s physical and emotional well-being.”