Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of Major Depressive Disorder that occurs only during specific seasons in the year (typically fall and winter).  Diagnosis can be difficult because other physical complications may interfere with mood.  Treatment of seasonal affective disorder takes several forms mostly including light therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and medication.

Diagnosis
Physical Exam

First, see a physician and get an exam to make sure that your body is functioning well.  It is always important to rule out any physical problems that may interfere with your mood.

Thyroid

When you meet with your physician, get blood work to determine if you have thyroid problems.  Often times the thyroid is an underlying cause to mood disorders.  This is best treated with medications for the thyroid.

Counselor

If your family physician determines that you have no physical problems causing your depression, then it is time to meet with a psychologist or other qualified counselor who can diagnose your condition.  Seasonal affective disorder is a type of Major depressive disorder.  The symptoms include

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

People with seasonal affective disorder tend to have symptoms that are more specific to the subset such as low energy, overeating and weight gain, and social withdrawal.  They also may experience the opposite during seasons with longer days: agitation, poor appetite and insomnia.

Treatment
Light Therapy

Light therapy, or phototherapy, can be effective to improve seasonal affective disorder.  Dawn simulation, or heavy exposure to light during the morning, can be especially helpful.  This is because our energy levels tend to spike in the morning and fall in the evening.  Heavy light exposure in the morning helps our energy levels spike.  Without enough light in the mornings, our energy levels flatten through the day and the night, leading to more depressed symptoms.

Counseling

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy helps treat depression, including seasonal affective disorder.  By changing the way we manage our thoughts we can greatly affect the way we feel.  Also, changing our daily activities can improve depression, especially during seasons when the depression occurs.

Often times, counselors identify patterns of behavior that exacerbate depression for those more prone to the illness.  For example, he may discover that John plays softball during the summer and has many cookouts with friends.  During the winter, though, John takes more days off of work and spends most of his time being inactive.  A counselor will help John develop a winter routine that improves his mood, such as picking up indoor soccer and joining a club to be more social.

Medication

Antidepressant medication often helps treat depression.  Some antidepressant medications may help with seasonal affective disorder more than others.  Often times, family doctors will prescribe bupropion during the seasons when depression is most severe.  Bupropion is an atypical antidepressant with stimulating effects.  Medications for this type of depression are best used for severe forms of the disorder.  First lines of treatment include light therapy and counseling.  If you want to consider medication to supplement your treatment, talk with your family doctor for more information.

If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, the best way to manage is to make changes to your lifestyle.  Becoming more active, going outside more during daylight hours, eating healthier, and remaining social will improve your experience of the winter months.

For more information consider these articles:

What is Depression?

Thought Distortions (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

Depression