As the sun begins to set earlier and the winter days get colder, some look forward to snowflakes, icicles, and curling up with a mug of hot chocolate. But for millions of people, winter brings debilitating symptoms of depression that can go way beyond feeling sad. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is thought to affect roughly five percent of the country, with another 10 to 15 percent having a milder variation of SAD. Symptoms can include not only depression, but changes in appetite, weight gain, irritability, anxiety, sleep abnormalities, muscle aches and difficulty concentrating.
SAD can be tricky to diagnose because many of the symptoms are also found in numerous other psychological disorders. However, there is at least one defining element in every case of SAD; seasonal change. Individuals with SAD typically experience an onset of symptoms in the late fall, which become progressively worse through the winter months. By the spring, symptoms begin to dissipate and individuals return to their baseline level of functioning. Although we have not yet discovered exactly what causes SAD, research has shown a connection between natural light and the brain’s production of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that plays an important role in regulating mood. There is evidence that the amount of serotonin in certain regions of the brain declines during the winter, and that bright natural light is associated with higher concentrations of serotonin.
Fortunately, there are a number of treatment options to help make those winter months more bearable, and perhaps even enjoyable. Research has shown cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to be extremely valuable in not only helping people with SAD, but also in the prevention of subsequent episodes. Traditional CBT techniques such as restructuring negative thoughts are used in conjunction with a technique called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation assists in identifying activities that the person finds enjoyable to improve their experience of winter. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat SAD. In fact, bupropion, a type of antidepressant, has been approved by the FDA for the specific treatment of SAD. Lastly, light therapy has been used to help with SAD for over 30 years. The idea is that exposure to bright, artificial light will help replace the lack of natural sunshine during fall and winter months.