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Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

Think depression means year-round, non-stop misery? Think again. A type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) afflicts people only during certain times of the year. While most people develop SAD during the winter months, SAD can also hit during the summer. Here’s what you need to know.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is different from traditional depression in that it appears to have a clear external cause that is not related to life events. In other words, people don’t get SAD because something has gone wrong in their lives. Instead, some other shift in the environment—weather changes, alterations in light, or something else that affects the way the body processes emotions—triggers depression.

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder Different?

Most cases of seasonal affective disorder occur during the winter, so experts think that SAD could be due to changes in access to ultraviolet light. But because some cases also occur in summer, this cannot be the sole cause. Mental health experts have suggested a number of potential explanations:

  • Seasonal changes that trigger physical shifts in the body; for example, seasonal allergies might trigger inflammation that alters neurotransmitter function, thereby changing the way the body processes and manages emotions.
  • Emotional changes related to changing seasons. Perhaps Christmas reminds you of a traumatic childhood, for example.
  • Some other as-yet-unidentified factor. Note that not all cases of apparent SAD are actually depression. Sometimes people just feel unhappy for a while and then move on, so don’t assume it’s depression without first consulting a mental health professional.

Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

The seasonal affective disorder most commonly occurs in the winter, so if you get symptoms of depression only during the winter months, it’s a pretty strong signal that you might be dealing with SAD. Some other symptoms include:

  • Tiredness, malaise, and a general sense of feeling down and under the weather.
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or sadness.
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns; indeed, it is possible that some people experience natural shifts in these patterns during seasonal changes, potentially triggering an episode of SAD.
  • Intense feelings of sadness or emptiness that don’t change with your circumstances. If you’re sad about a break-up or financial woes, for example, it’s likely not depression.
  • Difficult in your relationship with other people.

Note that the symptoms of SAD tend to be less severe than with traditional major depression. However, it’s still possible to experience thoughts of suicide. If you experience these thoughts, seek help immediately.

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder

The most common treatment for the seasonal affective disorder is a UV light since most cases of SAD occur during the winter. For many people, exposure to this additional sunlight offers near-immediate relief.

If your symptoms occur during the summer, are severe, or light therapy does not work, your best bet is therapy. Counselling can help you discern the cause of your depression, craft a plan to free yourself from depression, and educate you about lifestyle choices that may help, such as exercise and dietary changes. If counselling fails or does not offer full relief, counselling blended with medication can work wonders.

If you’re ready to start the journey toward freedom from SAD, contact Three Seas today!