The best time of the year can sometimes bring out the worst of our feelings. The transition into the fall season has many things we can look forward to such as the holidays, fall festivities like pumpkin and apple picking and much more. However, along with the positives of fall come the negatives: As the seasons change, the weather becomes colder and the days become shorter. These factors can lead to some individuals developing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression.
Seasonal affective disorder is a specific type of depression that is linked to the changes of the seasons (Mayo Clinic, 2021). For most people diagnosed with SAD, the symptoms begin during the fall and usually last throughout the winter months, resolving in the spring. Another less common form of SAD is developed during the spring and summer months and settles down during the fall. Some of the symptoms of fall and winter SAD include hypersomnia, or oversleeping, overeating (with a craving for carbohydrates), weight gain, and social withdrawal when one feels like “hibernating” (NIMH). The causes of these symptoms, and SAD in general, are not yet fully understood by professionals. Although, research suggests that individuals with seasonal depression may have reduced activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin’s role in our brains is to regulate our moods. When an individual has normal levels of serotonin, they tend to feel happier and more emotionally stable. Therefore, if an individual is experiencing low levels of serotonin, they are more inclined to feel depressed (Cleveland Clinic). It has also been suggested that sunlight plays a part in controlling the levels of molecules that help regulate serotonin levels. In people with SAD, the maintenance of serotonin levels does not function properly. As a result, there is a decrease in serotonin for them during the colder and darker months of fall and winter (NIMH). The drastic decrease in sunlight also affects vitamin D production in the body. Vitamin D is believed to be important in boosting serotonin levels. Thus, lower levels of vitamin D will contribute to lower levels of serotonin activity in the brain, making us feel more melancholy than in other times of the year that have more hours of sunlight (NIMH).
While the symptoms of SAD may lead one to feel hopeless or overwhelmed, there are different treatment methods that can be used to help relieve them. Since SAD is a type of depression, some of the treatments are the same as that of Major depressive disorder (MDD). One of these treatments is psychotherapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of talk therapy in which an individual works with a licensed counselor or other mental health professional to talk through and learn how to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings. CBT for patients with SAD may focus primarily on shifting the negative thoughts they have surrounding the winter season to a more positive light. This can be achieved through a process called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation helps individuals to identify and create a schedule of enjoyable indoor and/or outdoor winter activities that they can engage in to fight the loss of interest brought on by this time of year (NIMH). Another kind of treatment for SAD, which is also used for MDD, is antidepressant medication. Since serotonin dysregulation is common in people with SAD, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed to increase serotonin levels and thereby regulate mood (NIMH).
A treatment that is specifically geared towards healing SAD would be light therapy, also known as bright light therapy (BLT). Light therapy, which has been around since the 1980s, works to expose individuals with SAD to artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light. BLT is administered in the form of light boxes with suggested exposure time of 30-45 minutes a day, preferably in the morning. Psychologist Adam Borland recommends using the light box as early in the day as possible. Dr. Borland specifies that one should not be looking directly at it, but rather using it as a nearby passive light source in their indoor space (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Another SAD-specific form of treatment is taking vitamin D supplements. As mentioned earlier, many individuals with SAD may experience some sort of vitamin D deficiency due to the lack of sunlight during the fall and winter months. Therefore, taking these vitamin D tablets may help improve symptoms for some (NIMH).
Just because SAD season is upon us, doesn’t mean that those of us who struggle with it should spend all of the colder months feeling sad. All of the treatments mentioned above have been found to be effective in relieving the symptoms of SAD. Of course, like any other condition, everyone is different and what works best for one person might not be what works best for another. Regardless, finding a form of SAD treatment that benefits you is a great way to enjoy the fall and winter season for all of its unique joys and festivities!
Cleveland Clinic. (2021, December 2). How light therapy helps SAD. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/light-therapy/
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, December 14). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
Serotonin: What is it, Function & Levels. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22572-serotonin#:~:text=Mood%3A%20Serotonin%20in%20your%20brain,serotonin%20are%20associated%20with%20depression.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Seasonal affective disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder