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Seasonal affective disorder: What it is and how to treat it

Learn more about the signs, symptoms and treatment for SAD, also known as seasonal depression.

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Seasonal depression or SAD is common in the fall and winter months.

Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a surge in mental health issues across the country, with at least 40% of Americans reporting struggling with mental health in a recent CDC survey. As we approach the winter, more Americans may also struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) -- also referred to as seasonal depression -- a form of depression that can strike in the winter as the days get shorter and colder. (SAD symptoms include a lack of energy, low mood and loss of interest or motivation.) Even though SAD symptoms can come and go with the changing seasons , it is a serious mood disorder that requires professional attention if it's affecting your life. 

Read more: The best SAD light therapy lamps

Even if you don't have a history of depression, SAD can still affect you (although it is more common for those with a history). While it's not a permanent condition -- it often begins in fall and resolves by spring -- there are several things you can do to help prevent it or cope with it. 

If you don't personally experience SAD, learning about it can help you support family, friends or coworkers who may experience it.

What is SAD and who is at risk for developing it?

"Seasonal affective disorder (also known as seasonal depression) is a form of depression that tends to affect people during the winter months. Symptoms are most common November to April and can vary from mild to severe," said Malin McKinley, LCSW, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and depression based in Agoura Hills, California. 

Although anyone can experience SAD, seasonal depression in the US tends to affect people more in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Northeast or other places that experience shorter, darker days and colder weather in the winter. 

The symptoms of SAD

  • Depressed mood
  • Negative thoughts
  • Fatigue
  • Hypersomnia (Sleeping too much)
  • Increased intake of carbohydrates/weight gain
  • Social withdrawal/hibernating 

If you have a family history of depression, have a depression or bipolar diagnosis, or are female, your risk of developing SAD is higher, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Although the causes of SAD are unknown, the disorder has been linked to biochemical imbalances in the brain due to a decrease in both daylight and sunlight during the winter months," McKinley said, referring to fewer hours of daylight and overcast skies that block out direct sunlight.

Read more: Online vs. in-person therapy: What you should know

COVID-19 and seasonal depression

Because of COVID-19, higher unemployment rates and a lot of general stress and uncertainty in the world, licensed mental health counselor Brittany Johnson says that she expects depression rates to continue to increase this fall and winter. 

To make matters worse, many people may also experience barriers to getting treatment, like not being able to afford therapy due to job loss, or they may not have in-person access to their typical support groups or community that normally helps them due to distancing requirements. 

Below, Johnson shares some common hurdles people may face to get treatment for seasonal depression, and some ways to overcome them.

Lack of available therapists: "This is one of the first times in history that therapists are experiencing the exact same crisis as their clients. So, many therapists are not able to provide the same amount of hours they typically work, and so there's less availability for people to get access to therapy," Johnson says. 

The good news is that many insurance companies have expanded telehealth services due to COVID-19, making it more likely that you can get coverage for a virtual therapy session.

Lack of social activity: A common treatment for depression is to engage in social activities and spend time with friends or family. Unfortunately, being able to see friends and family is limited for many people right now due to social distancing guidelines. During the summer, it's been easy to have socially distanced outdoor gatherings. But as the cold weather of fall and winter arrives, it won't be easy or even possible to hang out outside.

For now, it's important to make the most out of virtual interactions and spending time with a small group -- or your quarantine pod -- of trusted people who all agree on safety best practices. 

Job loss and lack of insurance: If you lost your job due to COVID-19, you may also lose your health insurance coverage, which can be a huge barrier to getting mental health treatment, especially if you are struggling financially. If you can't afford one-on-one therapy sessions, you have other options that are more affordable, or even potentially free.

"Many therapists are posting more on social media with tips and helpful things to do. Many of us are also creating YouTube pages to provide some generalized coping skills and things to do," Johnson says. Another option to look into is group therapy, which many therapists are facilitating virtually. Group therapy is often less expensive than individual therapy sessions, since more people can be seen together at one time. 

Woman doing a light therapy session. France

Light therapy can help combat seasonal depression.

BSIP/UIG

How can you prevent SAD?

If you have a history of depression, bipolar disorder or suspect that you may be susceptible to it, maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle is helpful. Science has found exercise in particular helpful for easing symptoms of depression.

"Changing certain behaviors that exacerbate depression or SAD will reduce the chances of developing SAD [or] depression. For example, staying active despite lacking the motivation, exercising and eating healthy even when you are not hungry. It is also important to reach out for support," Amy Cirbus, a New York-based Talkspace therapist, said.

"Lifestyle changes such as exercising 30 minutes per day, going outside to obtain natural daylight [or] sunlight, getting enough sleep, eating healthy, avoiding drugs and alcohol, decreasing screen time, meditating and connecting with loved ones are all great ways to increase emotional well-being and decrease symptoms," McKinley said.

What should you do if you think you have it?

If you think you're experiencing SAD and it's affecting your ability to get through your day, focus on work and maintain relationships, you should see a doctor. Regularly participating in talk therapy with a licensed therapist can also be very helpful. In addition to seeking professional help from a doctor, psychiatrist or other mental health professional, the following tips can help as well.

Create and follow a routine 

"With SAD there is the tendency to want to stay home and isolate as the lack of sunlight might make a person less motivated to get out. This can cause other strong feelings, which only add to the reason for not wanting to get out, leaving a person stuck in a vicious cycle. So creating a routine that ensures a person has activities during the day, support and self-care are all very important," Cirbus said.

Find your triggers 

When you experience depression, you often have common triggers that can send you into a negative place or an emotional low. Find what those are, like scrolling social media or watching the news, and limit those as much as possible. "Finding out what your triggers are and being able to have a plan so you know what to do when you're triggered [is helpful]," Johnson said. 

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Spending time with friends and loved ones can combat seasonal depression, but it's hard to do in 2020.

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Find a safe community you can do socially distanced activities with 

Social distancing and other safety precautions can make socializing in 2020 difficult, but finding a sense of connection and community is important when you're feeling depressed. If you can, try to see friends outside in a safe environment, where you can remain six feet apart. If you can't see friends in person, or don't feel comfortable with that, try to arrange regular Zoom or Facetime sessions so you can still feel connected. 

Take care of your mental and physical health

Making an effort to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, stay hydrated and eat healthy, balanced meals will all support your overall health and mental health. Don't be afraid to reach out to friends and family when you feel down. Emotional support, connection and a sense of community is important for helping you feel your best.

Try light therapy 

Getting outside for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day is ideal. But, if you don't have a lot of sun where you live or your schedule keeps you indoors a lot, a light therapy device is a relatively inexpensive solution. "Sitting 20 to 90 minutes in front of a light box specially designed for light therapy has shown to be effective within weeks. The light stimulates pathways in the brain that controls sleep and helps regulate mood," McKinley said.

Light therapy is another promising intervention since increasing light exposure (even if from an artificial source) can help alleviate or prevent symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. Light exposure affects the body's ability to produce certain hormones and helps regulate the circadian rhythm -- both of which are important for overall health, sleep and mood regulation.

You can purchase them online in a variety of different sizes and price points. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.