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Seasonal affective disorder is a kind of depression that strikes only during one season — usually winter. How can you recognize the signs, and what can be done to treat this depression?

As I'm writing this, a slippery ice blanket and a piercing breeze are telling me I'm better off indoors, where it's still not as warm as I'd like and a perpetual warm coffee is the only thing that keeps me typing. Dark, dreary, and cold, it's no wonder, really, that only seven percent of Americans say that winter is their favorite season.

For most people with seasonal affective disorder — with its apt acronym of SAD — winter doesn't just suck, though, it's downright depressing.

Being deprived or daylight, low melatonin levels, and cold temperatures are all thought to contribute to this "winter depression", something that explains why northern-hemisphere dwellers are more likely to have it. In rarer cases, seasonal affective disorder can also strike people during other seasons, however. 

Seasonal affective disorder: The basics

The DSM-5, the current incarnation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, doesn't consider SAD to be a separate diagnosis — rather, it's a kind of specifier to clarify when someone's symptoms hit. Symptoms of what? If you asked this question, you're right on the money. Although seasonal affective disorder often applies to people with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder (clinical depression), SAD can also fall under bipolar disorder. 

In the case of depression, people with seasonal affective disorder will meet the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder, but:

  • The symptoms arise only during a particular season, and aren't better explained by other factors — like that season also being the anniversary of a traumatic event, or being a seasonal worker who's out of work and suffering from financial trouble during the season you're depressed in.
  • The symptoms go away completely when the season is over — for most people, this means they're no longer depressed when spring rolls around.
  • Your seasonal depression is part of an established pattern — whenever the problematic season hits, you're more likely to be depressed than not.

You're more likely to develop seasonal affective disorder if someone in your family suffers from it, you have a history of depression, or you live far from the equator. 

A look at the symptoms: Could you be suffering from seasonal affective disorder?

The key symptoms of major depressive disorder — which will strike during a particular season and then subside in seasonal affective disorder — are:

  • A "depressed mood". That's quite a broad descriptor, but it involves things like feeling sad, down, low, empty, hopeless, and pessimistic most of the time. Some people also get incredibly irritable.
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in (almost) all activities, from socializing to building model airplanes (or whatever other thing used to really excite you) to things like getting out of bed or brushing your teeth. 
  • Weight gain or weight loss even though you're not trying for it, often because of changes in appetite
  • Insomnia or oversleeping. 
  • Slowed physical movement, or on the other hand being especially restless and fidgety
  • Being low on energy and really tired all or most of the time. 
  • Feeling worthless or guilty, even though you have little objective reason to. 
  • Being unable to concentrate or otherwise think straight much of the time. 
  • Thoughts about dying, about suicide, plans to commit suicide, or attempting to commit suicide. 
While there's a bit more to the diagnostic process, if you recognize at least five of these symptoms but only during a particular season (like winter), it's very possible you suffer from seasonal affective disorder. As with depression in general, the symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. With mild SAD, you'll feel depressed much of the time but can still function. At the most severe end of the spectrum, sufferers are in such severe distress that they can hardly do anything. 

If you've felt this way in winter (or perhaps another season) for a long time now, you may have come to see your symptoms as an unfortunate but inevitable part of life. It isn't so — seasonal affective disorder can be treated!

How is seasonal affective disorder treated?

You're probably aware that antidepressants and talk therapy are the most effective treatments for depression in general. They're an option for people with seasonal affective disorder, too, but for those who suffer from winter SAD, other possibilities are on the table as well:

  • Light therapy is an effective way to artificially expose you to more "daylight" — it is considered the first line of treatment for folks with winter SAD who aren't suicidal, especially if they've already tried light therapy with good results in the past or express an interest in trying it, and there are reasons to avoid antidepressants. Depression lifts very quickly for some people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder after undergoing light therapy. 
  • Exercise is a great way to help decrease symptoms as well. 
  • Melatonin therapy may be beneficial as well, with research still being inconclusive. 

Antidepressants are, meanwhile, indicated if your symptoms are severe — especially if you are suicidal. 

Once you and your doctor are aware that you suffer from seasonal affective disorder and it's going to return year after year if nothing is done, these therapies can also be prescribed preventatively. It is even possible to buy light therapy systems for home use, for instance, and beginning the therapy as the season changes may prevent seasonal affective disorder from being a problem. 

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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