What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Do you experience the “winter blues” when the colder weather comes? Feelings of sadness, fatigue, dread and hopelessness can result from SAD, a form of major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern. In rare cases, Seasonal Affective Disorders can cause major depression in the spring and summer months, then SAD symptoms resolve in the fall and winter.
The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) does not define SAD as a separate disorder. Still, it puts it in the category of depressive disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 4% of American adults experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, with women more commonly affected than men.
Causes of SAD
While the causes of this mental health disorder aren’t apparent, researchers suggest that the shorter daylight hours in the colder months likely play a role. It can impact your circadian rhythms, which tell the body when to sleep and wake. In other words, you could experience depressive disorder when you aren’t getting enough natural sunlight.
Circadian rhythm disruption can also affect your hormones. Specifically, lower serotonin levels and elevated melatonin may lead to depressive episodes during seasonal changes.
Many people find SAD symptoms improve with light therapy. You should seek professional treatment if you notice that you develop sad and hopeless feelings or any of the other symptoms described below in the late fall when the days get shorter.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people who have this mental health condition typically experience the following:
- Depression for at least several hours on most days of the week
- Unexplained weight or appetite changes (often an increase in food intake that results in weight gain with winter-pattern Seasonal Affective Disorder)
- Loss of interest in favorite hobbies and activities
- Withdrawal from social events and relationships
- Feelings of agitation, restlessness or anxiety
- Sleep disorders such as insomnia or hypersomnia (oversleeping)
- Low energy
- Sense of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Thoughts of suicide or death
The APA says that SAD symptoms usually last for about 40% of the year, typically in the fall and winter, depending on where you live. Younger people more commonly experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, particularly those ages 18 to 30. Some people with bipolar disorder experience increased depression during the winter, with manic symptoms developing during the warmer months.
Your healthcare provider may recommend antidepressant medications, psychiatric therapy and/or the use of light therapy box to help resolve symptoms of SAD. It’s also critical to treat underlying substance use disorder, a common co-occurring condition. For example, you may find your alcohol use increases when you begin to experience signs of depression. Over time, this pattern can lead to addiction.
Relationship Between SAD and Alcohol Abuse
A 2004 study published in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry found that, like Seasonal Affective Disorder, some cases of alcohol addiction arise or worsen during the winter months. Researchers theorized that these individuals might self-medicate with alcohol consumption for undiagnosed SAD, which explains why these conditions are often co-occurring disorders.
The study authors also report that substance abuse and depressive disorder have environmental and genetic causes among the general population, so your medical professional must take a thorough family history.
A more extensive population-based study, published in 2017 in The Journal Psychiatry Research, surveyed more than 5,000 Finnish individuals. The researchers found that participants with symptoms of SAD are more likely to also struggle with substance abuse, theorizing that these individuals spend more time indoors with increased access to alcohol when the days get shorter.
They also found a genetic link, meaning you’re more likely to develop these conditions if your family members have similar symptoms. Understanding this dual diagnosis can help scientists develop treatment options for clinical practice.