HealthONE - December 22, 2017

We all know that daylight savings time can cause the winter blues. But, for those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), just getting out of bed can feel overwhelming. Hypersomnia, or excessive need to sleep, is just one symptom people with SAD experience during the winter months. A type of seasonal depression, SAD comes and goes as the seasons change, with most people feeling the effects from fall until spring. 

Length and severity of symptoms depends on whether or not you receive proper treatment. Unfortunately, roughly 60 percent of sufferers feel depressed and don’t seek behavioral health treatment because symptoms feel vague, act similar to another condition like certain thyroid disorders, don’t last all year long, or feel like a regular case of the blues.

What causes SAD?

While scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes SAD, many believe the short days and dark mornings in winter confuse your internal clock, known as circadian rhythm. Additionally, less light causes lack of energy because your brain releases more melatonin, the chemical that makes you sleepy. Alternately, in the summer, more light tells your brain to produce more serotonin, a hormone that helps wake you up, give you energy and fight depression.

What are seasonal depression symptoms?

Similar to clinical depression, seasonal depression symptoms include:

  • Feeling persistently sad
  • Never having any energy
  • Sleeping one full hour more per night than in warmer months
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of motivation
  • Interacting less with others to the point of isolation
  • Feeling worthless
  • Guilt about things that didn’t used to bother you
  • Increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Suicidal thoughts (Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 right away if you experience suicidal thoughts or actions.)

What help is available?

Fortunately, treatment is available for SAD and can help prevent future episodes of seasonal depression and positively impact general wellness. If you experience any SAD symptoms for two weeks or more, getting support from a counselor can help you get back on track with a positive routine to improve your symptoms. Try to eat healthy meals, stick to an exercise program and follow a set sleep schedule.

Learn more about behavioral health services available in your area.

What are treatment options?

Along with counseling, numerous treatment options can be used in tandem to improve SAD symptoms and mental health. Try to get out as much as possible, interact with others and stick to your exercise routine to treat SAD. Additionally, light therapy mimics the mood-boosting effects of natural light and can be recreated with a special light box. Light therapy can be used in the morning, when you would normally wake up. But avoid staring into the light; just relax in the glow for about an hour, perhaps while reading.

Negative ion generators have been found to reduce the symptoms of depression in people with SAD. While more research is needed to learn how these machines improve mood, some experts believe inhaling negative ions causes your brain to release serotonin.

If lifestyle habits and light therapy don’t work, some people may need counseling combined with antidepressants. However, note that people with bipolar disorder who become depressed during the winter won’t benefit from antidepressants and will need to take mood stabilizers instead. Medication can start to work within a few weeks.

With light therapy and lifestyle changes, your symptoms may start to improve in just a few days. Don’t put off getting help any longer. If you’re feeling the effects of SAD, reach out to a counselor and make a plan to get your routine back on track.