Many of us may feel a little down when fall arrives with its shorter days and an end to summer fun. And all the piles of crunchy leaves and pumpkin spice lattes can’t fix it. For some people, this feeling can become more than just a temporary bad mood.
As many as one in five Americans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Nearly five percent of people suffer from a severe form.
Also called "winter depression," SAD is known for its major depressive episodes that begin in the late fall to early winter months and remit during the summer months. Less common is a spring-onset type, or “summer depression.”
The condition is considered a clinical diagnosis, and it is marked by periods of depression followed by periods of normal or high mood the rest of the year. According to Heather Banks, MD, a family medicine doctor in the Denver area, SAD is considered to be a form of clinical depression with a seasonal onset and remission, rather than a separate mood disorder.
Onset usually occurs during adulthood, with the average onset occurring at approximately age 23. It is more likely to affect women than men, Dr. Banks said.
Increased appetite with carbohydrate craving
Interpersonal difficulties, especially rejection sensitivity
Leaden paralysis – heavy, leaden feelings in arms or legs
Fortunately for SAD sufferers, treatment is available and you don’t have to wait for the spring thaw to feel yourself again. If you are feeling the symptoms above, talk with your doctor and the two of you can create a treatment plan that works for you. Each plan is different and you don’t want to navigate a mental health issue by yourself.
The two most common treatment options are typically light therapy and antidepressant medications.
“Light therapy involves exposure to visible light that produces 10,000-lux for 30 minutes per day,” says Dr. Banks. “Some patients have an immediate response to light therapy, though typically it takes two to four days and sometimes up to several weeks for patients to respond. Randomized trials have found that antidepressants are beneficial for patients with fall-onset SAD.”
You’ll want to get natural sunlight whenever you can, but don’t rule out a light therapy box. For those of us from sunnier states it might seem strange to have a box of artificial light on your desk, but it might be helpful.
We have two other suggestions that are universal to good health, but can be particularly helpful if you’re suffering from symptoms of SAD: Exercise and a regular sleep schedule. We know, getting to the gym after work when it’s already dark out sometimes takes a herculean effort. Try a lunch workout or right before work. If you can keep moving through the winter months your body and mind will thank you.
If you can keep a regular sleep and wake time, your body might come to expect it and push you to sleep and wake at the appropriate times. This can be particularly beneficial if you’re having trouble getting to sleep or waking up.
Finally, remember that there are two seasonal patterns of symptoms have been identified with SAD: a fall-onset type, also called "winter depression," in which major depressive episodes begin in the late fall to early winter months and remit during the summer months, and a spring-onset type, also called "summer depression," in which the severe depressive episode begins in late spring to early summer.
If you think you may suffer from SAD, in either season, consult your doctor or healthcare provider.
You can also take our Seasonal Affective Disorder Quiz to learn more.