Story at a glance
- Changes in daylight and temperatures in fall and winter can lead to changes in mood and energy.
- Seasonal affective disorder is a type of major depressive disorder.
- People who have this disorder might have several symptoms of depression, such as feeling listless and hopeless.
With days growing shorter and temperatures dropping in many parts of the country, people may experience seasonal changes in mood. Some of that is natural, as people feel their energy drop in reaction to less sunlight, and for some people it can become serious to the point of a mental health diagnosis. This time of year is associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can occur when changes come with the passing of fall into winter.
In previous winters during the coronavirus pandemic, experts raised concerns about various types of anxiety and depression colliding during the colder and darker months. This year, there’s been an early surge in RSV cases, flu and other respiratory illnesses, especially in pediatric patients. All of this could contribute to people feeling down and stressed as winter approaches.
Although many people might feel dips in mood, however, that does not mean they have SAD, which is a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
“We say that someone has winter depression or seasonal affective disorder if they have this pattern of depressive symptoms consistently in the winter months,” said clinical psychologist Philip Gehrman, from the University of Pennsylvania, to Changing America previously.
As a disorder, SAD may be easier to diagnose if it has occurred multiple years in a row. People with the disorder typically have at least four depressive symptoms like feeling listless, losing interest in activities, low energy, feeling hopeless and irregular sleep.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Menial Disorders, which psychologists use to diagnose patients, SAD is listed as a “specifier of either bipolar or recurrent major depressive disorder, with a seasonal pattern of major depressive episodes.”
Research is still being done to understand SAD and what those with the disorder can do to cope with it.
In a recent study, researchers found a SAD-linked seasonal pattern in levels of mRNA found naturally in the bloodstream. They also found that women and people who are evening chronotypes — meaning they prefer being active later in the day — are at higher risk for SAD.
In a paper published last year, researchers explored how SAD symptoms fall into four domains: Negative Cognition, Loss of Vitality, Increased Appetite/Weight and Dysregulation. Symptoms can interact across these domains, which could have implications for how SAD is researched and how interventions are applied, state the authors.
Recent research also suggests SAD might have an effect on memory and emotional bias. In an experiment published in Brain Sciences, 60 women with untreated SAD sat through audio-visual stories that had either a neutral or excited emotional feel to them.
Compared to a control group of women who did not have SAD, the SAD group performed worse on memory tests afterwards and showed “attentional bias for emotional negative stimuli,” according to the study.
There are various tips on how to deal with SAD. Studies have found that light therapy can be helpful for improving cognitive performance and mood. In a clinical setting, a SAD patient may be prescribed to use a lamp or light box with 10,000 lux (a measure of brightness). The use of lamps should be limited to a 30-minute session in the morning, however, to keep from disrupting general circadian rhythms throughout the day, according to experts.
Seasonality affects us all, and for people with SAD that may feel more intense. With or without a diagnosis, people can take certain steps to lessen the effects of the lengthening dark and falling temperatures. For example, they can proactively plan to be outside during daylight hours before the sun sets or to use a light box in the mornings.
If you think you might be suffering from depression or SAD, please reach out to a mental health professional or a local health clinic for help.
National suicide and crisis lifeline: dial 988 to reach a call center
Wellness and Coping Skills from Mental Health America