What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The winter blues, winter depression, a winter slump... Seasonal Affective Disorder goes by a lot of different names and describes a particular type of depression, one that typically shows up at the end of fall and carries on into the winter months. While it used to be considered its own mood disorder, SAD recently became a way to specify depression and is now technically called Seasonal Pattern Specifier.  Like my three-week phase of telling people to call me 'Kate' in college, the name change is arbitrary and everyone still calls it the original name, SAD.

 Some symptoms of SAD include:

  • Having a rough time waking up in the morning
  • Overeating (marked by increased cravings for carbohydrates)
  • Decreased energy and experiencing that leaden feeling in your limbs, as if your arms and legs are especially heavy
  • Decrease in the ability to concentrate and complete tasks

UMMM, THAT WAS BASICALLY ME EVERY DAY LAST WEEK. 

Before you freak out and spend the next 20 minutes falling down the WebMD rabbit-hole, it's important to note that SAD ismore than just feeling ‘out of it’ for a few days and wanting some pasta.  SAD is also marked by a withdrawal from social activities, uncharacteristic pessimism and the inability to extract as much pleasure from things that normally make you happy.

What SAD is not is a personality preference for tiki-torches and warm sunny beaches.  There are legitimate physiological changes that are happening in your brain and body, mostly connected to light exposure, circadian rhythm disruption and your subsequent ability to absorb serotonin.  

Side note: Serotonin is the neurotransmitter (a naturally produced chemical in your body that sends messages to different parts of your brain) you're always hearing about, and you probably know it can heavily impact your mood.  If you want to know more about serotonin, this post is an excellent place to start.

Anyway, that’s the thing about SAD that makes people minimize their symptoms and blame themselves for being in a permanent winter funk, awareness for the physiological components connected to the disorder is low, so the seasonal mood change is conceptualized as a personality preference when it’s actually a physiological response.  There’s a reason SAD is extremely rare for those living within 30 degrees latitude of the equator.

For example, just last month, researchers at the University of Copenhagen were able to use brain scans to demonstrate quantifiable differences in the brains of patients who reported experiencing depression-like symptoms in the winter months.

 Here are more stats on SAD according to Mental Health America:

  •  3 out of 4 SAD sufferers are women
  • The onset of SAD typically occurs in young adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 30
  • While more are thought to suffer from SAD, about half a million people are diagnosed with SAD each year

The good news (finally) is that there are highly effective treatments and interventions for those who suffer from SAD, just read on.