Sad face symbol drawn in snow

As the days get shorter, and there are fewer hours of sunlight to enjoy, it's common for people to experience a slump in their mood. Although a mild case of the "November blues" is not a cause for alarm, some people experience a more dramatic emotional change that lasts the whole season. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

SAD is characterized by symptoms of depression that follow a predictable seasonal pattern--most sufferers only experience symptoms in the winter months. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available for SAD. If you believe that you, or someone you know, may be suffering with SAD, it's important to seek the help of a qualified health professional who can assist in finding an appropriate treatment.

Recognizing SAD
If you're feeling down in late autumn and winter, how do you know if it's just the blues or something more serious? If you live in a place that has long winter nights, you are at greater risk for developing SAD, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). SAD occurs more often in women than men, though it may strike people of all ages, from teens to adults.

Although there is no test available to confirm a diagnosis of SAD, certain signs and symptoms may indicate the condition. The symptoms are generally the same as those observed in other forms of depression. The difference is that the symptoms tend to arise in the late autumn and winter:

  • A feeling of hopelessness
  • Increased sleep
  • Increased appetite, leading to weight gain
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to bring you pleasure
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Less energy
  • Irritability and sluggishness
  • Withdrawal from others

Treating SAD
There are two main treatments for SAD: light therapy and home management.

Light therapy. Light therapy involves the use of a special lamp that contains very bright light that mimics sunlight. The light brightness must be 10,000 lux to be effective. When light therapy works, symptoms of SAD can improve within three to four weeks.

Your doctor may recommend sitting a few feet away from the light box for around a half hour every day, generally around sunrise. You should avoid looking directly at the light.

For best results, you should start light therapy before the symptoms of SAD even begin--during the fall or early winter. Your doctor can guide you on the best way to use light therapy for your particular condition.

Home management. Developing healthy habits can help you manage SAD symptoms on your own. NIH recommends:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating nutritious meals
  • Watching for signs that your SAD is worsening--talk to your doctor if it worsens
  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Spending time with others

HealthAhead Hint: Don't Just Wait for Spring
Though the symptoms of SAD tend to resolve on their own once the winter months end, NIH emphasizes that your symptoms can improve more quickly if you seek treatment. If you're feeling more down than usual this winter, schedule a check-up with your healthcare provider. Your doctor can give you a physical or perform blood tests to help rule out other disorders. The prognosis for SAD is excellent with treatment, so don't just wait for spring: seek treatment early and feel happier during the snowy season.