What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how to tell if you have it

You may have heard the term ‘SAD’ or Seasonal Affective Disorder before when describing people who tend to feel down during the colder and darker winter months. But what is Seasonal Affective Disorder and how does it differ from clinical depression?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a subtype of clinical depression that occurs during the winter season each year. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, symptoms first begin to appear as the days become shorter – usually in late fall and early winter and begin to subside by April or May.

The exact cause of SAD has yet to be determined but most experts agree that one of the key causes is a lack of sunlight as some reports suggest that there is a connection between vitamin D and the levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. A lack of sunlight has also been shown to upset our natural biological clock which controls our sleep-wake patterns.

What are the symptoms?

Generally speaking, medical professionals say that symptoms should occur for two consecutive winters without any other explanation to cause the changes in mood or behaviour in order to be accurately diagnosed with SAD.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Changes in appetite, in particular a craving for sweet or starchy comfort foods

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue or a decrease in energy

  • Oversleeping

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability

  • Avoiding social situations

  • Anxiety

Who is affected by SAD?

While statistics show that roughly anywhere from 2-5% of Canadians suffer from severe clinical depression, those who are considered to have SAD are part of the roughly 25-35% of Canadians that are simply described as suffering from ‘winter blues’ or seasonal depression.

While the weather and the amount of sunlight we receive has been shown to have a direct link to our mood, research has shown that SAD is more common in northern countries such as Canada. Research has also shown that SAD affects more women than men, 80% of those who are diagnosed with SAD are female.

Treatments for SAD and ways to conquer the winter blues

For those who are experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder or the winter blues there are treatments and solutions available to help you begin feeling better.

The most common form of treatment for people experiencing SAD or other seasonal mood disorders is light therapy. Get outside and get more sunlight when you can. Not only will the extra sunlight boost your Vitamin D levels, but it can also improve your mood. Winter is full of shorter and darker days and because of the cold weather most of us flock to indoor activities. Try keeping the blinds open and sit near windows where you can – and of course head outside during chinooks

If natural sunlight isn’t an option, a Light therapy (high intensity ultraviolet-filtered bright light) lamp may help by resetting your biological clock. Ask your doctor for more information.

Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Being active during the daytime, especially early in the day, may help you have more energy and feel less depressed.

Don’t underestimate the power of friends and family. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or encouragement when you need it. Something as simple as a phone call, a chat over coffee, or an email can brighten your mood.

Register for counselling. Consider speaking to a counsellor at Calgary Counselling Centre. They can help you sort through your feelings and determine if it is just seasonal depression, or something more.

Nick Heer