Seasonal Depression

Seasonal depression, aka seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that changes with the seasons. Keep reading to learn what causes seasonal depression, its causes and symptoms, and what treatment options are available for seasonal depression.

Seasonal depression, clinically referred to as “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) - a term coinced in 1984 by Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal - is a cycle of depression that comes and goes with the changing seasons of the year. It affects around 500,000 people in the United States, a similar number in the UK, and as many as 2 million Swedes, and most people who experience seasonal depression are affected in the late fall and the winter. This may be called the “winter blues.” However, some people with seasonal depression feel its effects in the late spring and the summer.

Seasonal depression affects more people in the northern parts of North America than in the southern regions. Those who have seasonal depression are most likely to be women  between the ages of 18 and 30.

This article will review seasonal depression, its causes and symptoms, and give an overview of some treatment possibilities.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Although the causes of seasonal depression are not certain, the fatigue, lethargy, and feelings of hopelessness that may characterize seasonal depression are believed to be linked to chemical changes in the brain that result from the amount of sunlight, operating in conjunction with the person’s internal clock. The level of melatonin - a hormone produced by the body and related to sleep patterns and moods - and serotonin - a neurotransmitter, also related to mood, may also be involved.

Seasonal depression is more likely in people who live in locations with less sunlight, both as a result of distance from the equator and cloudy skies. There may also be a genetic component, as seasonal depression seems to have a familial element in some cases.

Symptoms of Seasonal Depression

Symptoms of seasonal depression are often similar to the symptoms of any major depression. The person with seasonal depression is likely to feel less energetic and more fatigued, have difficulty in concentrating and be irritable and anxious, may oversleep and have lessened interest in activities previously enjoyed. The craving for sweet and/or starchy foods may be associated with seasonal disorder that occurs in winter, as may weight gain. Those who are affected in the summer show some symptoms that might be characterized as opposites, experiencing a loss of appetite and weight loss and insomnia, while possibly also experiencing agitation, irritability, and anxiety. The onset and relief of symptoms generally occur at the same time each year.

Treatments for Seasonal Depression

Treatments that may help in addressing seasonal depression include light therapy, medicines, dietary changes, stress management techniques,  therapy, and/or visiting a location with more sun during the winter.

  • Light therapy, also called phototherapy, involves times exposure to specialized, very intense lights, usually purchased by the patient and used at home. Although 50-80% of patients have achieved relief with traditional light therapy, new variations have continues to emerge. New techniques announced as being under exploration in late 2008 include attempts to better estimate appropriate exposure times, attempts at dawn simulation, rather than consistently bright light, and the use of blue light. Tanning beds do not constitute light therapy for seasonal disorder.
  • Medications include antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other antidepressants, like bupropion.
  • Counseling may involve cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy.
  • Stress management includes regular physical exercise and spending time outside, when possible.
  • A rather drastic treatment that can be highly effective is to move to a geographical location that is within 30º of the equator.
  • And the most light-hearted and entertaining treatment that has been found to help the mood of people with seasonal disorder is to watch movies shot in sunny, warm climates or sporting events, such as golf or cricket, taking places in similar locales.


Related Article: Alcohol Depression >>