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Seasonal Affective Disorder: All Year ‘Round

Jordan Westfall, LPC-IT

Have you ever felt increasingly sad once the weather gets cold and it is the middle of December? Or how about when it is July and the scorching sun is out? You may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder that impacts an individual’s significant change in mood and behavior when the seasons change. SAD is also a type of depression with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year with a recurrent seasonal pattern. Symptoms experienced in individuals with SAD include having low energy, losing interest in activities once enjoyed, oversleeping, and poor appetite (resulting in either weight gain or loss). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, SAD is diagnosed more prevalently in women than men, and can be dependent on where an individual lives geographically. In most individuals, SAD begins in young adulthood. SAD also co-occurs with other mental health concerns such as anxiety and ADHD. The causes of SAD are not fully understood by scientists currently. Some research states that there may be reduced activity of the brain chemical serotonin, as it helps to regulate mood. Other research suggests that individuals produce significant amounts of melatonin, which is linked to the sleep-cycle. Also, there could be deficits in vitamin D, which can intensify symptoms as it can hinder serotonin production. 

A common misconception is that individuals only experience SAD in the winter months, and that is not always the case. Summer SAD is also common in individuals, and can be confused with general depression (Counseling Today, 2023). In order to differentiate between the two, clinicians can recognize patterns in a client’s history and the time period in which the individual is experiencing symptoms. If the individual is experiencing these symptoms in June, July, August, and even early September without experiencing them in other months, this could be  a sign of summer SAD. According to Counseling Today (2023), individuals who experience summer SAD are more likely to sleep less, feel agitated, and have a smaller appetite. Individuals tend to have heightened expectations of what summer looks like to them due to what social media presents as spending a significant amount of time outside with family and friends. Individuals with summer SAD may not enjoy that time and they may not enjoy engaging in summer activities with others. Individuals may feel like they are missing out on prime opportunities to engage in summer activities with their loved ones, and they often feel like outsiders watching others enjoy their summer. 

Treatment for winter SAD and summer SAD may look different. There are four main categories including light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, and vitamin D. Light therapy aims to expose individuals to a bright light every day in replacement of the lack of natural sunlight during the winter months. Psychotherapy can be conducted in a group setting and it focuses on replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. The group also guides individuals to schedule pleasant indoor or outdoor activities to combat the loss of interest experienced. Medications such as SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are used to enhance an individual’s moods significantly. Nutritional supplements for vitamin D may also be incorporated for individuals experiencing SAD to improve their symptoms. Temperature regulation strategies are especially helpful for individuals with summer SAD and reduction of light exposure in their environments is also recommended and can be discussed with a clinician.

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