Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, creating mood swings and energy loss. It can also cause depression in the spring or early summer but this is much less common.
Although there is no known direct cause, three factors have shown to be linked with seasonal affective disorder. A person’s biological clock is known as the circadian rhythm. The reduced sunlight in fall and winter may offset this internal clock, creating stress when sleeping or awakening. This disruption may lead to feelings of depression. Serotonin levels, a chemical in the brain that affects mood, may drop when there is reduced sunlight. This too can trigger depression. Melatonin levels, a chemical that facilitates sleep patterns and mood, can also be disrupted if the internal clock is offset.
The “winter blues” may not seem life threatening, but seasonal affective disorder can progress into long-term depression, bipolar disorder, or create thoughts of suicide. Symptoms of this illness include feelings of hopelessness, increased appetite and sleep, loss of energy, loss of interest, social isolation, and irritability. SAD is more apparent in people who live in areas where winter days are very short, locations with big changes in the amount of daylight, women, people aged 15 to 55, or those related to an individual with the illness.
Common treatments for seasonal affective disorder include light therapy. Bright light treatment and dawn simulation use boxes with fluorescent lights that are brighter than indoor lights. It is usually prescribed for 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the intensity of the light. Light therapy can help reset your biological clock or circadian rhythm. Antidepressants effectively treat episodes of depression in people who have seasonal affective disorder. Many individuals notice a difference in 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. Nausea, anxiety, drowsiness, and headaches are the most common side effects of the medications.
Interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy may help treat seasonal affective disorder. Individuals learn about SAD, ways to handle the symptoms, and how to help prevent future depressive episodes.
The Villa Orlando and Pasadena Villa’s Smoky Mountain Lodge are adult intensive psychiatric residential treatment centers for clients with serious mental illnesses. We also provide other individualized therapy programs, step-down residential programs, and less intensive mental health services, such as Community Residential Homes, Supportive Housing, Day Treatment Programs and Life Skills training. Pasadena Villa’s Outpatient Center in Raleigh, North Carolina offers partial hospitalization (PHP) and an intensive outpatient program (PHP). If you or someone you know may need mental health services, please complete our contact form or call us at 407-574-5190 for more information.