4 Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Mental Health America states the further you live away from the equator, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

Most people are affected in the fall and winter months when the days are much shorter. However, 10% of the total SAD population experiences symptoms during the Spring and Summer. For diagnostic purposes, SAD is now classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by changes in the brain during certain times of the year.

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the Brain

Researchers have studied people with SAD and have discovered common factors contributing to the disorder. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects mood. When Serotonin is low, you feel sad and down. When Serotonin is high, you feel happier. Because the sun is known to boost serotonin levels, spending more time in the sun is associated with happier moods, like you can in the spring and summer months.

The opposite would be true, too. As days shorten and there are fewer hours of sunlight, serotonin levels drop, leaving you feeling depressed.

Another theory supporting SAD and the brain is that less sunlight affects melatonin levels. Melatonin promotes sleep and mood. When out of balance, like what can happen seasonally, so are your sleep patterns and mood. This can also disrupt your internal biological clock, leading to further depressive symptoms.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

There are five categories of symptoms connected to seasonal affective disorder.

Appetite and Weight Changes

When someone is diagnosed with SAD, they have specific symptoms related to eating. Those with winter SAD note craving more carbohydrates and sweets and find themselves eating more junk food. Satisfying their craving leads to weight gain. This type of emotional eating may be a way to suppress feelings of depression while also slightly boosting the pleasure center in the brain. That’s why some foods are called “comfort food,” they make you feel good and full, so you no longer have to feel sad and empty.

Spring and summer SAD varies in that a person typically has a poor appetite and loses weight without trying.

Mood Swings

Anytime the chemicals in your brain fluctuate, your mood will fluctuate. There are some mood disorders more common among those with seasonal affective disorder. Depression creates various sub-symptoms, including a feeling of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, having thoughts of suicide, or thinking the world would be better without you.

Anxiety is another mood disorder with sub-symptoms of nervousness, feeling stressed, and constantly worrying. Some people may experience panic attacks.

If you have bipolar disorder when seasons change, it may trigger a cycle change in mood. For example, if in the winter months you feel depressed, spring and summer could trigger a cycle of mania.

Energy Levels Drop

It’s normal to feel tired after a long day of fulfilling responsibilities personally, professionally, and socially. In the winter months and around the holidays, you may feel exhausted some days. With seasonal affective disorder, you experience a whole new level of fatigue.

Energy levels are at their lowest, and you feel lethargic. At times you may feel like it takes extra effort to get out of bed. Other times you decide to stay in bed. You experience days altering days of insomnia, excessive sleepiness, and oversleeping. When you do sleep, it feels like it is not enough, leaving you feeling guilty.

Social Disconnection

Major depressive disorder with seasonal patterns negatively affects your personal and social relationships if left untreated. If you are in a romantic relationship, being intimate is not something you want to do. A drop in Serotonin can lead to a decline in libido. Plus, you want to isolate yourself and be left alone until spring. You are easily agitated by friends, family, and coworkers who want your attention. Occasionally, your agitation can turn into outbursts.

Connecting socially is more difficult with SAD. You find it hard to stay focused in conversations and easily lose your train of thought. You have trouble making decisions that make social activities feel more like chores. If you had your way, people would leave you alone.

Who Gets Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Risk factors are events that happen to you in your life that make it more likely you will experience a mental health disorder like SAD. Risk factors are often out of your control, like genetics. If your family has a history of major depressive disorder, you are at risk for developing the disorder, with or without a seasonal pattern.

If you already live with a mental health disorder of any kind, you may be more susceptible to developing SAD. Also, if you are female and between the ages of 20 and 30, you have a higher chance than men and people in other age groups.

Additional risk factors include

  • Experiencing trauma in the months where you experience SAD. For example, if you lost a loved one in December, the winter months could be a reminder of that trauma, leading to depressive symptoms.
  • Underlying medical conditions, like arthritis, worsen in cold weather.
  • Substance misuse is directly related to an imbalance of mood-related brain chemicals.
  • Some medications have side effects of depression and anxiety.

Getting Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you think you have symptoms of SAD, don’t wait until the winter months to get help. Start before the season begins, working with a licensed mental health therapist to treat the seasonal affective disorder. There are multiple treatment options, but those who see the most success with a combination of antidepressant medication, individual psychotherapy, vitamin D supplementation, and light therapy.

Working with your therapist, you can create a treatment plan to help you maintain a lifestyle you can enjoy, even during the fall and winter months. Reach out to the Mental Health Center today, virtually or by phone, for more information on SAD treatment.