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When Sadness Is Seasonal

If you feel depressed during fall and winter months, you may have a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms of SAD may develop slowly or begin suddenly. The problem usually fades away during the spring and stays away during the summer.

Facts about seasonal affective disorder

Children and teens can have SAD, but it usually starts during young adulthood. SAD that begins in the winter is more common in northern areas of the country that get less natural sunlight. SAD may be related to changes in the brain's chemicals that occur with fewer daylight hours and less sun exposure. People make larger amounts of the hormone melatonin when days are shorter. This chemical has been linked to depression.

What to look for

SAD can bring depression that ranges from mild to severe. You may also have feelings of hopelessness and guilt. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble focusing

  • Sleeping more

  • Headaches

  • Changes in appetite

  • Weight gain

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Less interest in activities that usually make you happy

  • Loss of interest in being social

How is it diagnosed?

Your health care provider will diagnose SAD by asking you certain questions. You will need to discuss your symptoms, how they're affecting your daily life, and how long you've had them. To help pinpoint SAD, your provider will ask if you've had these symptoms during the same season or seasons for more than a year. SAD can be confused with other physical or emotional problems, so be sure to describe your symptoms carefully.  

Added light helps

Doctors and mental health experts often advise people with SAD to get more exposure to light. Taking walks outside during the day may help relieve your SAD. Getting more exposure to sunlight through a window may also be suggested.

Your health care provider may also recommend a form of light therapy in which you sit in front of a particularly bright light. Special lamps and light boxes that deliver this type of light are available for treating SAD. You may need to use the light for at least 30 minutes a day during the fall and winter.

In addition, antidepressant drugs and counseling may be helpful in relieving symptoms of SAD.

Managing seasonal affective disorder

If you have SAD, work with your doctor or mental health provider to find the best treatment at the appropriate times of the year. Taking steps to deal with SAD during the seasons when it usually affects you may help better control the symptoms.

If you are having extreme feelings of depression, feel that the pain is too much to bear, or are thinking about suicide, immediately contact your doctor or go to an emergency department.

Home remedies

Though your doctor can help you properly treat your SAD, you can buy light boxes online without a prescription.