The days are getting shorter. The weather is getting colder. Furnaces are coming out of their summer stupor and sweaters are reemerging from the closet. Winter is coming, the season of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.
The DSM-V specifies that it is a disorder marked by symptoms of major depressive disorder occurring during the winter months, but remitting the rest of the year. It has geographic variation, impacting 1.4 percent of the population in Florida vs. 9.9 percent in Alaska. Other risk factors seem to be age (the young are at greater risk) and gender (women report SAD four times more often than men). Since it is a type of depression, it may exacerbate individuals who struggle with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder year round.
Symptomatically, it is similar to major depressive disorder, with symptoms ranging from apathy to a general lack of energy or engagement. It can also cause anxiety, insomnia, or agitation. The only difference is these symptoms are typically linked to late fall and winter, with symptoms subsiding as spring returns.
It can be treated by sitting in front of light boxes, typically for 20 to 60 minutes. It can also be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or vitamin D. If you struggle with SAD, or if you have another underlying mental health condition that you fear might be exacerbated by SAD, it is important to discuss these concerns with your doctor, because having SAD doesn’t mean you have to stay sad.
For me, fall and winter have always been my favorite seasons, although that is mostly because I hate the heat. However, it is also the time that people stay inside more, and I feel less awkward about my social anxiety when the world is snowed in. Both are selfish reasons to love a season, but that is the truth. Nevertheless I sympathize with those who do struggle with SAD, and hopefully can ease that struggle by sharing my own experiences and successes with major depressive disorder alongside some facts about SAD.
Although these “seasonal blues” might not seem like something you should seek treatment for or change your behavior for, that is just a lie. Just like with any mental disorder, having SAD might not be your choice, but how you manage it is. And as someone who has had many bad days with depression, I can assure you that anything that helps lessen those bad days is worth it.
So here is hoping this brief introduction to seasonal affective disorder helped brighten your day. And yes, that pun was absolutely intended, because no matter the season, sometimes we all need a little something extra to provide some brightness and banish the darkness.
Sources: Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan (2014). Abnormal Psychology (6th ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Seasonal Affective Disorder