Shedding Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s winter again, which means that I’m starting to see more clients with symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a seasonal form of depression that occurs during the winter months. Though the precise biological mechanisms underlying SAD remain unclear, it is thought to be driven by the seasonal reduction in daylight rather temperature. That means that Bay Area denizens are susceptible to SAD, despite our temperate climate.

What are symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Anxiety

  • Hopelessness

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Weight gain

  • Difficulty staying focused

Like most disorders, SAD ranges widely in its severity. For some, it can be a minor annoyance that has a slight impact on productivity and well-being. For others, however, the changing seasons can catalyze a serious depressive episode.The course of SAD varies from person to person. For some, it worsens over the course of the winter, while for others, symptoms seem to improve.

When to Seek Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While it’s normal to experience the “winter blues” sometimes, you should consider treatment if you are feeling down and depressed more days than not, if you find yourself consistently relying on food or alcohol to calm your emotions, or if you are having serious thoughts of hopelessness or suicide.

SAD is not uncommon; somewhere between 1 and 10% of Americans are thought to suffer from it each year. And, it is increasingly prevalent at higher latitudes. Anecdotally (and I haven’t formally collected and analyzed data), I have noticed that my clients tend to display higher levels of depression and chronic forms of anxiety between November and April.

Behavioral Changes and CBT can help alleviate symptoms of SAD

As in most mood disorders, changes in routine can go a long way toward improving symptoms. Establishing a regular routine that includes daily exercise is of top importance. Making time for relaxation and social contact are also key. Of course, if none of these remedies aid in brightening a chronically low mood, it is best to seek counseling. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a research-supported form of treatment for SAD. And, for some individuals, antidepressant medications can be an option.

Light Therapy and SAD

There is some research evidence that SAD can be treated via light therapy. This involves daily sessions of targeted exposure to a bright light (usually a specialized light therapy lamp) to make up for the lost light exposure that occurs in the winter. Light exposure is thought to be central to our circadian rhythms by affecting the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and hormones such as melatonin. Light therapy essentially tricks your brain into thinking it is summer. There is considerable evidence that light therapy is effective in the treatment of SAD, and other disorders such as insomnia and AD/HD. And, for what it’s worth, a  number of my clients have reported success with light therapy.