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Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is depression that’s related to the changing seasons. Its onset begins and ends around the same time each year—typically starting in the fall and ending in the spring. The dark winter months sap your energy and deflate your mood, reducing your quality of life and leaving you feeling hopeless. In this article we will discuss seasonal depression and how to treat this disease.

SAD is more intense than the run-of-the-mill wintertime blues, but you don’t have to suffer from it in silence. A variety of treatments are available for SAD, and you can do a number of things on your own to reduce the severity of the disorder.

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

While researchers aren’t completely sure what causes SAD, the reduction of sunlight in the fall and winter months are thought to be a major factor, according to Mayo Clinic. Your circadian rhythms, or biological clock, can be disrupted by less sunlight, which may lead to a drop in serotonin and melatonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps to regulate mood, and melatonin is a hormone that also has an effect on mood as well as regulates sleep patterns. These disruptions can cause feelings of depression, which may range from mild to severe.

Women are more likely to suffer from SAD than men, but men are more likely to be affected more intensely than women. Young people have a higher risk of wintertime SAD, and clinical depression or bipolar disorder can increase your risk of developing SAD and make the symptoms more severe.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter-onset seasonal affective disorder can cause a drop in your energy levels and lead to oversleeping and a feeling of heaviness in your limbs. You may feel irritable and have trouble getting along with other people, and you may find that you’re more sensitive to rejection than usual. You may also experience changes in appetite, which are often marked by cravings for high-carbohydrate foods.

Spring- and summer-onset SAD are far less common than the winter-onset variety and may cause insomnia, depression, anxiety and weight loss due to a reduced appetite.

Major depression may accompany either type of SAD, causing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, a loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy and thoughts of suicide.

Substance Abuse and SAD

People with SAD are at an elevated risk of abusing drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication. While drugs or alcohol may seem to temporarily improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, or irritability, they nearly always worsen the symptoms over the long run. Chronic substance abuse can lead to addiction and physical dependence, which further complicate matters by changing your brain chemistry and leaving you more vulnerable to the depressive symptoms of SAD.

Treating SAD

The typical approach to treating SAD involves light therapy, psychotherapy, or pharmacotherapy, which is the administering of medication. Some may find relief from just one of these therapies, while others with severe symptoms may benefit from a combination of the three.

The National Institutes of Health cites light therapy as one of the most effective ways to treat SAD. Light therapy is administered by way of a light therapy box, which mimics natural outdoor light. The box is typically used for about a half hour each morning. Light therapy begins working within a few days to a couple of weeks, resetting your natural circadian rhythms and causing natural changes in the production of brain chemicals and hormones associated with mood.

Medications used to treat SAD may include sleep hormone melatonin, or, in more severe cases, antidepressants like bupropion (Wellbutrin XL). If you have a history of SAD, your doctor may begin your treatment before your symptoms set in each year.

Psychotherapy, or “talk” therapy, can also go a long way toward alleviating symptoms of SAD. Psychotherapy helps you identify the negative ways of thinking and behaving that affect your mood and learn to replace these with healthier thoughts and behaviors. Therapy can also help you learn coping strategies for SAD and stress management techniques to help reduce the intensity of your symptoms, and it’s particularly helpful for those who want to address a substance use disorder that co-occurs with the SAD.

What You Can Do at Home

The National Institutes of Health recommends a few simple lifestyle changes to help you cope with SAD. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet can help combat some of the depressive symptoms of SAD, and regular exercise can keep stress at bay and release natural feel-good brain chemicals. Spend as much time in the sunlight as possible, even if it’s through a window, and stay as socially active as you can during the winter months to avoid feelings of isolation. Avoid excessive use of drugs or alcohol, which can worsen symptoms and cause suicidal thoughts in people with SAD.

You don’t have to be sad and miserable all season long. If you think you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder, talk to your physician about treatments that can help you maintain a positive outlook during the cold, dark season so that you can enjoy life to the fullest year-round.

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Have You Been Diagnosed with Seasonal Depression? Here’s How to Treat it
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