Depression is a sometimes severe condition that affects a substantial portion of the population each year. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), 17.3 million American adults, equating to 7.1 percent of the U.S. population over 18 each year. There are several variations of depression, but major depression is the most common. It disproportionately affects women more than men and can lead to substance abuse issues. An estimated 20 percent of those with depression also have a substance use disorder (SUD).
As was mentioned above, there are many variations of depression that can affect a person. Every now and then, it’s normal to experience feelings of sadness. The death of a loved one or your pet, failing a class at school, or losing a job are all legitimate reasons to feel bad. However, once it begins to affect your daily life, there could be other powers in play. Depression can cause you to lose touch with reality and stay in bed while avoiding responsibilities because of how you feel.
In some cases, you may notice your depression increase in severity during the change of seasons, known as seasonal depression. Whatever the cause, the first step is reaching out for help from your doctor. They can listen to you and refer you to a mental health specialist to help determine if you’re suffering from seasonal depression or one of the other many variations. The diagnosis is vital in deciding how to move forward with treatment.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Like we said above, going through short bouts of feeling sad or unlike your usual self is common. For some, these changes start and finish when the seasons change, and some people may start feeling down when the days are shorter in the fall and winter, also known as winter blues. When spring rolls around, they’ll start feeling better as the hours of daylight increase.
The severity will vary from one person to another, but in some instances, the mood changes are more serious and will affect how the individual thinks, feels, and handles their daily activities. If you’ve noticed a significant difference in behavior and mood when the seasons change, you may be experiencing seasonal depression, sometimes referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal depression mostly occurs in the late fall or early winter and dissipates during the spring and summer, known as winter-pattern seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression. Others might experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months, known as summer-pattern seasonal affective disorder, or summer depression, which is less common.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression is not considered a separate type of condition. However, it is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern. Symptoms typically last around four to five months each year, meaning the signs and symptoms of seasonal depression include those associated with major depression, with some specific symptoms that are different for winter-pattern and summer-pattern seasonal depression. Not everyone who is dealing with the condition will experience all of the symptoms listed below.
Symptoms of major depressive disorder include the following:
- Having low energy
- Feeling agitated or sluggish
- Feeling depressed most of the day, mostly every day
- Experiencing changes in your weight or appetite
- Losing interest in the activities you found once found joy in
- Dealing with sleep issues, such as an inability to sleep or sleeping too much
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Inability to concentrate
- Enduring frequent thoughts of death or suicide
For those with winter-pattern seasonal depression, other specific symptoms include:
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Gaining weight
- Oversleeping, known as (hypersomnia)
- Social withdrawal, meaning the urge to feeling “hibernating”
Those dealing with summer-pattern seasonal depression will experience the following:
- Agitation and restlessness
- Trouble sleeping, known as insomnia
- Episodes of violent behaviors
- Poor appetite, which leads to weight loss
How is Seasonal Depression Diagnosed?
If you believe you’re suffering from seasonal depression, it’s vital that you reach out to your healthcare provider or a mental health specialist to voice your concern. You may be required to fill out a specific questionnaire to determine if the symptoms you’re dealing with meet the criteria for seasonal depression.
To receive a seasonal depression diagnosis, you must meet the following criteria:
- You must have symptoms of major depression or the other more specific symptoms we’ve listed above.
- The depressive episodes must peak during specific seasons, including the winter or the summer months, and must last for at least two consecutive years. With that said, not all people with seasonal depression will experience symptoms each year.
- The episodes must be more frequent than other depressive episodes a person might have had at other times of the year throughout their lifetime.
Who Develops Seasonal Depression?
Millions of American’s will experience seasonal depression. However, a vast majority of them won’t know they have the condition. Seasonal depression, like major depression, affects women at a much higher clip than men. The condition is far more common in those who live to the north, where the days are shorter in the winter. For example, someone living in Alaska or Canada is more likely to develop the condition than a person living in Florida. In many cases, seasonal depression starts in young adulthood.
Seasonal depression is more likely to occur in those with bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, especially bipolar II disorder. The latter is associated with recurrent hypomanic and depressive episodes, which are less severe than full-blown manic episodes you’ll encounter with bipolar I disorder. In addition, those with seasonal depression will have other mental disorders, including an eating disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, or panic disorder.
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
The cause of seasonal depression is still not fully understood by scientists. Research has shown that people with seasonal depression have reduced activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates our mood. Research also shows that sunlight controls the level of molecules that maintain average serotonin levels. However, they found that for those with seasonal depression, the regulation doesn’t function properly. This results in decreased serotonin levels during the winter months.
Other findings found those with seasonal depression produce excessive amounts of melatonin, a hormone that maintains normal sleep-wake cycles. Overproduction of this natural chemical will lead to increased sleepiness.
Melatonin and serotonin help our bodies maintain daily rhythm tied to the seasonal night-day cycle. For those with seasonal depression, the changes in melatonin and serotonin levels disrupt their normal daily rhythms, resulting in an inability to adjust to the seasonal changes in day lengths. This results in mood, sleep, and behavioral changes.
Vitamin D deficiencies look to exacerbate these issues because vitamin D is widely believed to promote serotonin activity. In addition to the vitamin D we consume in our diet, our body produces the vitamin when exposed to sunlight on our skin. When daylight shortens in the winter, those with seasonal depression will have lower vitamin D levels, further hindering their serotonin activity.
Adverse feelings and thoughts about winter and its limitations are common for someone with seasonal depression, and it’s unclear if these are causes or effects of the condition. However, they can be useful starting points in treatment.
How is Seasonal Depression Treated?
Fortunately, various treatments exist for someone battling seasonal depression. The four primary categories of treatment that will either be used alone or in conjunction with another include:
- Vitamin D
- Light therapy
- Antidepressant medication
Only after a diagnosis by a medical provider can you determine which treatment will be the most effective for you. They might suggest one of the above-listed treatments or a combination of them.
Light therapy has been a mainstay in treating seasonal depression. The objective is to expose those with the condition to bright light each day to make up for diminished sunshine in darker months. The treatment lasts 30 to 45 minutes each day, and a person sits in front of a bright lightbox. The lightboxes are 20 times stronger than ordinary indoor lights and filter out potentially damaging UV rays.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy geared toward helping individuals learn how to cope with challenging situations. It has also been adopted for those with seasonal depression. Both CBT and light therapy are equally effective in treating symptoms.