Seasonal affective disorder FAQ and Treatment

How common is seasonal affective disorder?

About 10 percent of people in the northern latitudes of the US have some seasonal mood changes and 1-2 percent of those will have severe symptoms.

How is seasonal affective disorder different from regular depression?

Seasonal depression is marked by increased appetite, craving starchy or sugary foods, weight gain, loss of energy, increased desire to sleep, difficulty concentrating, and social withdrawal.

What causes it?

No one really knows what causes seasonal depression but there are some good leads.  Sunlight helps balance the daily hormonal changes in the body and less sunlight makes it harder for your body to know when it should be awake or asleep.  The further you live from the equator, the less sunlight you will get during winter months and thus have more potential for seasonal mood changes.

What can I do to help myself?

Try these strategies if your seasonal blues are mild:

  • Get outside into the sunlight daily
  • Open blinds and turn on lights in your home
  • Exercise at least three times per week
  • Avoid long naps
  • Get out of bed at the same time each day
  • Limit starchy or sugary foods
  • Keep socially active

If your seasonal swings are causing problems with relationships or work, seek professional assistance.  Don’t wait for things to get worse, seasonal symptoms resolve more quickly and are less severe if treated early.

What treatments can a medical professional offer?

Light therapy (sitting in front of a special light source each day)

  • Pros: does not involve taking medications, few side effects
  • Cons: it takes discipline and planning to spend 30 to 60 minutes sitting in one location every day.
  • Medications prescribed by your doctor

  • Pros: easy to use, inexpensive.
  • Cons: side effects can be bothersome but they usually quickly decrease to tolerable levels
  • Counseling

  • Pros: techniques learned will last a lifetime
  • Cons:  requires a time commitment
  • Taking a vacation to a warm southern location

  • Pros: vacations are fun!
  • Cons: expensive, difficult to schedule the vacation at the correct time because onset of seasonal mood problems can change from year to year.
  • Want more information? The Mayo Clinic has a very complete overview of Seasonal Affective Disorder.