What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Here's what to know if you truly want to hibernate all winter.
Ah, winter—a time for family gatherings, Starbucks drink creations, and...seasonal depression.
Sure, it's pretty standard to feel bummed as soon as the days become shorter and the temperature drops, but seasonal depression, aka seasonal affective disorder (SAD) isn't just that urge to stay under the covers and not move until May. Here, mental health experts weigh in on what the typical symptoms of seasonal affective disorder look like—and what to do if you think you might have it.
What exactly is seasonal affective disorder?
Technically speaking, seasonal affective disorder is now known as major depressive disorder (MDD) with a seasonal pattern. It’s when your depression is triggered by a specific time of the year—and it doesn't only happen in the fall or winter. It's also not necessarily different than regular depression; the only thing that separates it from true MDD is that it occurs at the same each year, at least two years in a row.
“Seasonal affective disorder isn’t a separate disorder from depression. [It’s] more considered a subtype. The way [seasonal affective disorder] presents is identical to nonseasonal depression,” says James Murrough, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. That means SAD doesn't look any different than typical depression—but here are a few symptoms that you should keep in mind.
1. You always feel blue—and have zero energy.
Seasonal affective disorder, like other instances of depression, is more than a fleeting feeling of sadness. It’s characterized by a “persistent low or depressed mood, which the patient just can’t shake, says Dr. Murrough, adding that they often just feel "negative." Dr. Murrough also noted that some patients have described SAD as feeling like they’re “looking through blue tinted lenses.”
2. You're never hungry (or you're always hungry).
One main symptom of MDD—and ultimately, SAD—is a change in your appetite, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). But that can mean an increased or decreased appetite—and it may depend on when your SAD hits.
Per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) SAD has both summer and winter patterns. While many of the symptoms are similar for each time period, symptoms of winter–pattern SAD often include oversleeping and cravings for carbs, while summer–pattern SAD may present poor appetite and weight loss.
Conversely, some patients who experience SAD overeat or suffer from emotional eating, adds Susan Bowling, PsyD, who works in psychology and psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic.
3. You feel hopeless, or have thoughts of suicide or death.
This one's important: According to the NIMH, both SAD and MDD may show up as frequent thoughts of suicide or death. Additionally, those same people may feel depressed on a daily basis, or like they are hopeless or worthless. Not having interest in activities that you once enjoyed can also be a symptom of seasonal affective disorder (or, again, nonseasonal depression). In the winter, social withdrawal or "hibernation" may also be a symptom, per the NIMH.
So what can you do about seasonal affective disorder?
The symptoms of SAD can last weeks to months, says Dr. Murrough. But if you think you’ve suffered from the disorder in the past and you’re worried it could be triggered in the future, there are some precautions you can take to protect yourself.
Dr. Bowling recommends consuming more vitamin D during the winter months if you experience seasonal affective disorder then. You can do this by taking a supplement or by working more vitamin D into your diet, via eggs, tuna, salmon, mushrooms, and other foods. “When it’s not as light out, we’re not getting as much vitamin D, [and] vitamin D is very significant,” says Dr. Bowling.
Another thing to consider if you’ve suffered from seasonal affective disorder in the past: If you’re on antidepressants and you plan to come off them, know that the winter months usually bring on seasonal affective disorder, so you and your doctor might want to consider waiting until after the season to stop the medication.
Dr. Murrough adds that light box therapy could be helpful for patients who struggle during the winter months. “That being said, studies show that bright light therapy [is] good for depression in general” no matter when it occurs, says Dr. Murrough.
At the end of the day, he adds, patients have “several avenues” to explore when it comes to treating seasonal affective disorder, and if you think you suffer from it, having a conversation with your primary care doctor is an excellent place to start getting help.
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