Things to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD: What it is and how it Differs from Major Depression

The first snowfall of the season can be exciting. Trees and grass are dusted in a powdery white, and suddenly, things feel cozier. As November and December roll into January and February, the skies remain grey, and the falling snow that was once a welcomed friend, feels like a sworn enemy. As daylight dwindles in the winter months, our brains can begin to produce too much melatonin: a hormone in your body that plays a role in sleep.  

An overproduction of melatonin can lead to seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. According to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM, 2021) SAD can be described as mood changes that begin and end when the seasons change. Some symptoms of SAD can include weight gain, oversleeping, social withdrawal, and overeating - particularly with carbohydrates.  

Typically, seasonal depression begins around the late fall and early winter months and diminishes as spring and summer roll around. The year of 2020, and so far, 2021, have been dreary, and the weather is no exception. This winter season has been classified as one of the top 10 snowiest seasons on record for Pittsburgh, so, naturally, the dark and damp weather may be effect on your mood. Below, we’re listing a few things that will help you determine if your experiencing SAD this season, and what you can do to improve your mood.  

SAD is not Major Depression  

Often seasonal depression presents itself as depressive disorder by causing a person to feel tired, agitated, tearful, and suicidal, among other things. The difference between the two is that major depression is a disease that effects your brain’s pleasure responses year-round. Seasonal depression will end with the major change in seasons, such as winter into spring. As the days become longer and the weather becomes warmer, individuals with SAD will start to feel improvements with their mental health. The good news is that both major depressive disorder and SAD are treatable.

SAD Affects both Men and Women

Women and men are both affected by SAD each year. It is believed that women are more likely to experience seasonal depression, but psychiatrists are finding that might not always be accurate. Women and men express things differently. Men may tend show more irritability, anger, and frustration with their depression, while women may have more experience dealing with anhedonia, tiredness, and increased sadness.  

Other Causes of SAD

- Melatonin production is a leading cause of SAD. When it becomes dark outside, your brain begins to produce more melatonin to help you sleep. Sunlight during the day sends a signal to the brain to stop creating melatonin, helping you to feel awake and alert. Again, when the days get shorter, your body may begin to produce too much melatonin, leaving you to feel sleepy, groggy, and unmotivated.

- Serotonin production is also lowered in the late fall and winter months. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps your body to regulate mood, and any lack of this could seriously increase the chances of becoming depressed. Serotonin loss can, but is not limited to, affect memory, sexual desire, and appetite.  

- Circadian Rhythms, otherwise known as your body’s internal clock, are mental, physical, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Chronobiology, the study of circadian rhythms, explains the natural process of these cycles, which respond mainly to light and dark. Circadian rhythms affect most living organisms, including bacteria, plants, and of course, animals. Longer nights and shorter days can affect your natural sleep-wake cycle, which may lead you to experiencing symptoms of depression.  

Additional Information

While fall and winter SAD is the most common form of seasonal depression, there is such a thing as summer depression. People who experience summer SAD note that it begins around the end of spring and lasts until the fall. Unlike winter seasonal depression, summer SAD seems to be brought on by an increase in daylight, humidity, heat, and even seasonal allergies.  

Symptoms of summer SAD are similar in how they present themselves to winter SAD. However, there are a few differences. With summer SAD, more daylight and less nighttime means that you are likely to sleep too little, rather than too much. If you decide to seek treatment for summer SAD, your doctor may prescribe you melatonin pills, or suggest that you go to bed as soon as it gets dark and wake up when it gets light.  

Everything considered, there are a lot of factors that contribute to depression. Your chemical makeup is quite different from someone else’s and you should not compare yourself to others. If you are not feeling like yourself and you think that you may be experiencing SAD, consult your doctor to receive an accurate diagnosis.  

In the meantime, take walks and get fresh air, exercise regularly, investigate what light therapy is and how it can help you, and find out what your stressors are and work to overcome them. Additionally, get as much natural light as possible. You can start getting into this habit by opening all the blinds and curtains in your home and sitting near the windows when it is sunny outside.  

If you or anyone you know are feeling suicidal, please contact your local crisis hotline.  

Allegheny County Crisis Line: 1-888-796-8226

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

 

Sources:

  1. “Circadian Rhythms.” National Institute of General Medical Sciences, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/circadian-rhythms.aspx.  
  2. Dozier, Danielle. “Latest Snowstorm Pushes Winter Season into Top 10 Snowiest on Record for Pittsburgh.” WPXI, 10 Feb. 2021, www.wpxi.com/news/top-stories/latest-snowstorm-pushes-winter-season-into-top-10-snowiest-record-pittsburgh/7UKF5HXIPBGM3CLTCVMOBJLHSM/.  
  3. Robinson, Lawrence. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” HelpGuide.org, www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad.htm.  
  4. “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml.


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