If you find yourself feeling more down than usual during the winter months, you might be suffering from seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder can seriously disrupt your life and prevent you from enjoying activities associated with wintertime, including the holidays.
An estimated 5% of American adults experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and the condition typically spans approximately 40% of the year. Most people experience seasonal depression beginning in the fall when the days start to get shorter, and find that the condition tends to resolve in spring or early summer as the days get longer.
Taking the seasonal affective disorder quiz below can help you make sure that you know the signs of this common mental health condition.
What is the difference between depression and seasonal affective disorder?
The main difference between depression and seasonal affective disorder is that seasonal affective disorder affects people only during a certain portion of the year. For the vast majority of people, seasonal affective disorder begins during the fall or winter months and improves during the spring and summer. Most people with seasonal affective disorder experience their worst symptoms during January and February.
While it is also possible to experience the condition during the summer months, it is uncommon. The symptoms associated with both depression and seasonal affective disorder are very similar and can disrupt your lifestyle and daily functioning.
What causes seasonal affective disorder?
Scientists and health care professionals aren’t exactly sure what causes seasonal affective disorder, but there are a few theories.
Because the condition is most commonly experienced in the fall and winter, it may be that the reduced level of sunlight experienced during these seasons can cause a disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm, causing feelings of depression.
It’s also possible that a drop in serotonin (a chemical in the brain that affects mood) from reduced amounts of sunlight can trigger depression.
Additionally, changes in the seasons can impact the body’s level of melatonin, which ultimately disrupts sleep patterns and can have negative effects on mood.
Who is at risk of experiencing seasonal affective disorder?
Anyone can experience seasonal affective disorder, but women are more likely to experience the condition than men. Younger adults are also more likely to experience the condition than older adults.
People who have a family history of seasonal affective disorder, have major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, or who live farther from the equator are also more likely to experience the condition. The farther one lives from the equator, the larger the difference is between the amount of daylight during winter and summer months, which is believed to play a role in causing the condition.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Quiz
Your doctor will need to diagnose you with seasonal affective disorder, but if you are concerned that you might be suffering from the condition, taking this quiz can help you decide if it’s time to contact a doctor for help.
Consider contacting your doctor if you answer “yes” to any of the questions below.
Winter Quiz: Take this quiz if you are experiencing symptoms of depression during the winter months.
- Do you have less energy than usual?
- Are you having difficulty concentrating?
- Do you find that you are more tired than usual or are experiencing feelings of fatigue?
- Do you have a greater need for sleep than normal?
- Has your appetite increased?
- Have you experienced weight gain?
- Are you experiencing an increasing desire to be alone?
Summer Quiz: Take this quiz if you are experiencing mood changes during the summer.
- Have you noticed a decrease in your appetite?
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Are you experiencing unexplained weight loss?
How is seasonal affective disorder treated?
The first step in treating seasonal affective disorder is to get an official diagnosis from your healthcare provider. If you aren’t sure where to turn for an evaluation, you can use an online mental health service to match you with a physician, set you up with an initial evaluation, and receive prescription medication, if needed. Your physician can recommend a variety of treatment options, which we’ll go over below.
Seasonal affective disorder is commonly treated with antidepressant medications. Traditional antidepressants, such as Lexapro or Prozac, are popular treatments for seasonal affective disorder. However, only one medication, Bupropion XL, is FDA-approved specifically for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. If you concurrently also have another type of depression or bipolar disorder, your doctor may prescribe different medications than if you have seasonal affective disorder alone.
Another common component of seasonal affective disorder treatment is light therapy. Because seasonal affective disorder has been linked to disruptions in the hormone melatonin and the circadian rhythm, treatment with natural or “full spectrum” light can help restore proper function to these natural bodily processes. Many doctors recommend getting outside early in the morning to get more natural light, but this is impossible for some people where winter daylight is very scarce or the weather is poor. There are special lamps that emit full spectrum light, and using these lamps can have an antidepressant effect. People with seasonal affective disorder will sit about two feet away from a full spectrum bright light for a period of about 10 to 15 minutes once a day to start. As a patient’s tolerance builds, they can increase the length of their sessions to about 30 to 45 minutes per day. Some patients will need multiple light therapy sessions per day to help ease symptoms of depression, while others will need just one. Many people find that their symptoms improve significantly with the use of light therapy.
Can seasonal affective disorder be prevented?
Not all cases of seasonal affective disorder can be prevented, but it is possible to minimize the symptoms.
Doctors recommend spending some time outdoors each day, even when it is cloudy, as the effects of natural light can help balance your circadian rhythm. Once fall begins, start using a full spectrum light regardless of whether or not you notice symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. This can help keep symptoms at bay.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and exercising for 30 minutes a day, five times per week can improve your energy levels and help boost your mood.
Additionally, try and stay involved in your community, hobbies, and recreational activities, and connect with friends and family when you can.
If you notice that you are starting to develop symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. You don’t have to spend your whole winter feeling depressed — there is effective treatment available for seasonal affective disorder.
If you’re ready to get help, consider getting started with YANA. YANA is an online mental health clinic that is easy to use, affordable, and effective. We can match you with a provider to help you figure out what treatment options are most likely to help, and we can ship your medication (if prescribed) straight to your door. We make it easy for you to finally get quality mental healthcare on your terms, from the comfort of your own home.