Are You Just Sad or Are You SAD?


How to tell if you are suffering from a slight case of Cabin Fever or a true Seasonal Affective Disorder and what you can do about it.

Recent studies have shown that most people are more prone to sleepiness and low energy in the winter months. You may be more irritable, anxious and sad than during the summer. Whether this is due to changes in diet, exercise or light exposure has not yet been fully demonstrated although studies are ongoing. Some researchers believe that a slowing of metabolism may even be the result of our animal evolution, somewhat similar to the hibernation seen in other animals. In any event, some mood dip during the winter months might be normal cabin fever.

However, for some people, winter brings more dramatic and debilitating changes in mood that affect their ability to function. This type of mood change can sometimes be attributed to seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

Some facts about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD):

  • SAD is a type of winter depression affecting 1-6% of the population in North America.
  • SAD affects four times as many women as men.
  • SAD symptoms usually recur each winter. Symptoms start between September and November and continue until March or April.
  • Symptoms can include:
    • a desire to oversleep
    • sleepiness
    • fatigue
    • inability to carry out normal routines
    • a craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, usually resulting in weight gain
    • feelings of misery
    • guilt with loss of self-esteem
    • apathy
    • a desire to avoid social contact.

If you think you are suffering from SAD:

Contact a doctor or a therapist trained in assessing SAD. A thorough evaluation is needed before any intensive treatment is prescribed.

Medication. Some people benefit from treatment with antidepressants or other psychiatric medications, especially if symptoms are pronounced. If your doctor recommends medication he or she may also recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year. He or she may also recommend that you continue to take antidepressant medication beyond the time your symptoms normally go away. In any event, it is important to meet with your physician for a thorough evaluation before beginning treatment.

Talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be used as another method of treating Seasonal Affective Disorder. Although SAD is thought to be related to biochemical processes, your habits of behavior and thought patterns can also contribute to symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that may be making you feel worse. You can also learn healthy ways to cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder and manage stress.

Light therapy. High intensity light exposure has been shown to improve SAD symptoms in some people. Some insurance companies will cover the cost of a light box that delivers this high intensity light under which the patient sits for 30 minutes to two hours a day, usually in the morning. Ongoing research is being conducted on other forms of administering the high intensity light such as visors and eyeglass clips. Before purchasing a light box, it is important to contact your physician for a thorough evaluation to see if he or she deems it advisable since it is contra-indicated in some cases.

What you can do for yourself on your own, even if it is only Cabin Fever:

Get outside. Open up the curtains, trim the bushes blocking the window. Add a skylight. If you can get away to that sunny beach go for it but if not, no problem, you can always get outside for a walk or just sit on a bench in the sun – even if you need to bundle up! Just don’t forget the sunscreen.

De-Stress in healthy ways. Get some exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Don’t turn to alcohol or drugs that are not prescribed. Learn how to set limits. Spend time with people you enjoy being around.

Prevention. If you suffer from SAD you probably won’t be able to prevent the symptoms entirely. However you can prevent them from being as pronounced as they might be if you practice extra coping strategies before symptoms snowball:

  • check-in with your doctor or therapist
  • start monitoring eating, exercise and sleep habits
  • and make sure you are taking care of yourself

Originally published November 14, 2016

Susan Borchert, Ph.D. is a founding partner at Counseling Associates and a licensed psychologist. Her areas of clinical specialty include couples therapy, anxiety and depression, women’s issues, and work/career counseling.

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