Seasonal depression, also referred to as seasonal affective disorder or winter depression, is a type of depression that changes in a seasonal pattern. The symptoms of SAD tend to appear in the fall and get worse as winter hits. It is normal for most people to feel cheerful and more energetic when the sun is shining and when the days are longer. Conversely, you may find yourself eating more and sleeping longer during winter.

However, with seasonal depression, the effect on your moods and energy levels will be far greater with seasonal changes, leading to symptoms of depression and a significant impact on your day-to-day activities. This seasonal illness is associated with a lack of adequate sunlight as the days are shorter and colder in autumn and winter.

Causes

The exact cause of seasonal depression has not yet been established. However, experts believe it is caused by lack of sunlight affecting certain hormones in your body such as serotonin and melatonin.

Melatonin is a hormone that plays a role in your sleep patterns and regulating your emotions. Melatonin’s production is reduced with a loss in sunlight as experienced during winter and the shorter autumn days. This may, therefore, disrupt your sleep patterns or mood.

Serotonin is a brain chemical that affects appetite, mood, and sleep. A drop in serotonin levels, as a result of reduced sunlight, may trigger seasonal depression. The decrease in sunlight is also believed to disrupt your body’s internal clock, bringing about a feeling of depression.

Symptoms

There are many symptoms of seasonal depression whose severity may vary between different individuals. The more symptoms an individual has, the more likely they are to be depressed, which will have a significant impact in their day-to-day life. Some symptoms of seasonal depression include:

  • Irritability
  • Sleeping for longer than normal and finding it difficult to wake up in the morning
  • A persistent low mood
  • Loss of interest in normal day-to-day activities
  • Lacking in energy and feeling sleepy during the day
  • Feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • Craving carbohydrates and gaining weight
  • Low self-esteem
  • Tearfulness
  • Becoming less sociable
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Feeling anxious

If you think you have any signs or symptoms of seasonal depression, contact your doctor to have your mental health assessed and begin treatment if the diagnosis is confirmed.

Diagnosis

A doctor will assess your mental health by asking you about your lifestyle, moods, eating and sleeping habits, seasonal shifts in your thoughts and behavior as well as family history. There are many types of depression that share similar symptoms with seasonal depression, hence making it difficult to diagnose the condition. It may also take a prolonged period for you and your doctor to establish if your symptoms are forming a regular pattern during changes in seasons.

Diagnosis of seasonal depression:

  • You’ve had symptoms recurring at a similar time in a year for two or more years.
  • Your depression occurs at the same time each year. This period may be followed by periods of no depression.
  • If the diagnosis is confirmed, there are varying treatment methods that your physician may recommend.

Treatment

Treatment may involve using antidepressant medications, psychological methods, as well as changes in your lifestyle. Your doctor will recommend a treatment method that is best suited for your case, which may at times involve a combination of different treatments to get the best results.

According to scientific studies, antidepressant medications are more effective when combined with counseling. Examples of antidepressants used to treat seasonal depression include Cymbalta, Lexapro, Zoloft and Wellbutrin.

Psychological treatments focus on both psychological and social aspects. Some of the psychological treatment methods include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Counseling and psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • Light therapy

There are also helpful lifestyle changes that you may also implement to improve your symptoms. They include:

  • Avoiding stressful situations
  • Exercising regularly particularly outdoors and in daylight
  • Exposing yourself to as much natural sunlight as possible
  • Making a habit of sitting near a window when you are indoors
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet