It is completely normal to notice your mood changing with the seasons. It seems easier to feel joyful in the summer months when the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the weather is warmer. When winter strikes, however, your mood can drastically change. This happens in some ways to everyone.
However, there is a condition where your mood changes wildly with the seasons. This is known as seasonal affective disorder, when depressive symptoms manifest themselves in a specific pattern, commonly in the winter months. It is otherwise known as seasonal depression, winter or summer depression, or the “winter blues.”
If your mood has a predictable pattern, you may consider seeking help. While seasonal affective disorder is more commonly diagnosed in women, men exhibit the same symptoms at the same rate. Because men are less likely to share their experiences with healthcare professionals, they are less likely to be diagnosed.
What Are The Symptoms?
Characteristically, symptoms of seasonal affective disorder will begin appearing in late fall to early winter and dissipate as the season changes to spring and summer. However, the opposite can also occur, when symptoms begin during the spring or summer. Regardless of when they begin, symptoms tend to start out minor, but have a tendency to build in severity as the season advances.
Frequent signs and symptoms include the following:
- Losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- Feeling sad or depressed for most of the day, approximately every day
- Low levels of energy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Appetite changes or weight changes
- Difficulty with concentration
- Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Seasonal affective disorder that is specific to winter may have more detailed symptoms, including:
- Sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite, notably cravings for carbohydrates
- Gaining weight
When the disorder manifests during the spring and summer, the symptoms may be:
- Lack of appetite
- Losing weight
Because seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression, the symptoms are largely the same as they are for major depressive disorder. However, it is important to note when these mood changes take place and for how long. This is the key marker in differentiating between seasonal affective disorder and major depressive disorder.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown. However, research is leading scientists to believe that hormones within the brain cause the mood changes during a specific time of year. There is an abundant amount of theories besides this, however.
A lack of sunlight has long been thought to be the cause of seasonal depression. Due to the lack of exposure to sunlight in winter months, the brain makes less of the compound known as serotonin, which regulates mood. This may contribute to depressive symptoms.
Reduction in levels of sunlight can also affect your circadian rhythm, or “biological clock.” Your circadian rhythm is very susceptible to sunlight and the lack thereof. Changes, especially a decrease, in exposure to sunlight can disturb your internal clock, which may lead to depressed mood.
Who Is At Risk?
If you have a family history of seasonal affective disorder, you are much more likely to experience symptoms yourself. However, if a blood relative has seasonal affective disorder, you may not experience symptoms at all, or you may experience symptoms of a separate depressive disorder. The opposite may occur as well; you may experience season affective disorder while no one in your family shows signs.
If you have major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, your symptoms may worsen seasonally as well. Having these symptoms already increases your risk of being seasonally affected. However, these are not always directly tied together and should be seen on a case by case basis.
The farther you live from the equator, the more likely you are to develop symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. The disease is much more common among those who live far to the north or south of the equator. This is largely due to the extreme lack of sunlight during the winter months and long summer days.
Are There Complications?
Like other forms of depression, seasonal affective disorder symptoms should be taken seriously. It is common for these symptoms to worsen over time and lead to a host of problems, such as:
- Problems at school or work
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
- Other disorders, such as eating disorders or anxiety-related issues
Treatment is available to help you through your struggle with seasonal affective disorder. If you feel symptoms of depression, regardless of when it manifests, a doctor can assess you and recommend the correct form of treatment for you.
How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?
After diagnosis, your doctor may explore several options with you based on your specific set of circumstances. Treatment can vary based on the severity of your symptoms, as well as if you have another type of mental health disorder.
The first treatment possibility that doctors will typically try is light exposure. Doctors will recommend that you get outside, preferably in the early morning, to expose yourself to more natural light. This is a wonderful way to help get your circadian rhythm back to its normal pace. Going for a walk or just being outside of the home is a good start.
However, during winter months, exposing yourself to more light can be difficult due to less hours of daylight. If this is the case, a doctor may try antidepressants used to treat other forms of depression or use a light therapy box to simulate outdoor light.
Can I Prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There are some key actions that you can take part in to decrease your risk of developing seasonal affective disorder. These are not dissimilar to the ways to help decrease feelings of overall depression, such as eating a balanced and nutritious diet as well as exercising. However, there are some methods specific to seasonal affective disorder. Using a low-level light therapy box at the beginning of fall may help keep away depressed mood during winter.