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Seasonal Affective Disorder – therapy and treatment options

  • Since COVID-19 started, more than 40 percent of Americans have reported mental health struggles.
  • Wintertime sadness is more prevalent in northern states like Minnesota because of shorter days and less sunlight.
  • If your mood changes this time of year, you may have more than just the “winter blues.”

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – also known as seasonal depression – is a reoccurring depression sparked by the changes in seasons. Most people with SAD experience symptoms in the fall and winter months – and clashing with the COVID-19 pandemic this year, mental health issues could escalate. 

Experiencing a mental health condition can be overwhelming and can impact your ability to perform day-to-day routines. Seasonal depression can also lead to deeper psychological and physical symptoms if left untreated. 

That’s why it’s important to address mental health struggles sooner rather than later. Fortunately, you are not alone, and there are treatment options available to help improve your mood.

SAD during COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic may escalate symptoms for people with SAD because of social isolation, lifestyle disruptions and other uncertainties surrounding the virus. Since COVID-19 started, more than 40 percent of Americans have reported mental health struggles. 

You may have spent more time outside at socially distant gatherings with friends and family over the summer. Social interaction can help improve SAD symptoms. However, in-person gatherings are now limited because of COVID-related stay-at-home restrictions and cooler temperatures, making outdoor socializing more difficult. One way to safely stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic with your friends and family is to talk over the phone or through virtual technology.  

Winter blues in Minnesota 

Wintertime sadness is more prevalent in northern states such as Minnesota because of shorter days and less sunlight. While SAD and the “winter blues” have similar symptoms, there’s a difference between the two. Seasonal depression is a chronic condition that can last for months, while feeling the “winter blues” is typically short-term as your biological clock adjusts. 

Common SAD symptoms include: 
feeling depressed or sad
oversleeping
low energy or fatigue, even after getting enough sleep
difficulty concentrating 
a change in appetite

Allina Health offers a variety of programs and services for people experiencing mental health barriers.

Difference between normal depression and SAD 

Symptoms for depression and seasonal affective disorder are nearly identical. The difference between the two conditions is when the symptoms occur. Seasonal depression typically happens in the late fall and winter, while other forms of depression may happen at any time of year.

Similar treatment options are used for both conditions, but the approach is customized based on your diagnosis and mental health needs. 

Causes and Diagnosis of SAD

The direct cause of SAD is unknown. However, mood changes are commonly brought on by a change in your biological clock, which synchronizes your sleep-wake cycle. Changes in your biological clock can be caused by: 

Lack of sunlight exposure, temperature shifts or less social interaction. 
The production of melatonin, a hormone in your body causes sleepiness. Your body releases more melatonin in response to darkness. 
A drop in serotonin, a chemical in your body that can boost your mood. Exposure to sunlight activates the release of serotonin in your brain. 

Seasonal affective disorder can be diagnosed by a mental health provider. They may do a mental health exam to learn more about your medical history and how long you’ve experienced depression symptoms. Your provider may do a blood test to look for medical conditions known to cause depression symptoms, such as anemia (low number of red blood cells) and thyroid issues. Treatment options will be recommended following your diagnosis. 

Schedule a virtual visit with a mental health provider, who will work closely with you to create a customized treatment plan based on your needs. 

Treatment Options for SAD 

Treatment options for seasonal depression include light therapy, medications, exercise and psychotherapy. Your provider may recommend a combination of treatment options depending on your situation. Contact your provider and pause treatment if your condition worsens. 

Light therapy
Light therapy is a treatment involving exposure to artificial sunlight. Exposure to sunlight can potentially increase the production of serotonin, a mood-improving chemical found in your body. The benefits off light therapy, at a certain intensity and duration, have been shown to be helpful in the treatment of SAD. Speak with your doctor about the best light box for you and how it's used.

Medications
Your provider may recommend antidepressants to improve chemical imbalances causing your seasonal depression. Sometimes antidepressants are only recommended during certain times of the year when you’re more prone to experiencing the condition. Your body may take several weeks to experience the benefits from antidepressants. 

Exercise
Regular exercise is a natural way to improve SAD symptoms. Your workouts can help release the endorphins in your brain, which can improve your mood, reduce pain and increase feelings of well-being. Whether you’re a novice or an athlete, there are a variety of exercises you can plug into your daily routine. 
 
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is a common behavioral approach known to improve emotional health. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to improve symptoms of SAD.  The time it takes to experience improvement in mental health varies. 

Vitamin D
Many people with seasonal depression – and those who live in regions with less sunlight – have a vitamin D deficiency. However, there is no medical evidence directly proving that a lack of vitamin D causes SAD. Your provider may recommend a blood test to measure your vitamin D levels and create a plan right for you. 

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