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Mental Illness: How to Cope with Seasonal Depression

Mental illness can make people feel like they are alone without recourse, particularly if they are grappling with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). 


It is normal for everyone to go through phases of sadness and to feel like they are not themselves; however, some people experience these feelings intensely as the seasons change. Unfortunately, some people may start to feel alarming “down” as the days become shorter in the winter. On the flip side, they may begin to feel better in the spring, when we have longer days. 


If you begin to notice drastic changes in your mood or behavior when seasons transition, you may have SAD, which is a type of depression. Do not ignore your intuition because this disorder can impact your feelings, thoughts, and daily routine. 


In today’s blog, we will delve more into this condition as well as healthy ways you can cope with it. 


Understanding the Symptoms of SAD

To begin with, we must address the misconception that SAD can be separate from depression. SAD is a branch of depression that is characterized by its recurrent seasonal patterns, and its symptoms last approximately five months out of the year. It is also possible for people to experience SAD during the summer, known as summer-pattern SAD, but it is rare. For the purposes of this blog and based on the time of year, we will only be discussing winter-pattern SAD.


There is overlap between Major Depression and SAD, so many of the symptoms associated with SAD may stem from Major Depression. 


Symptoms of Major Depression include:

  • Feeling depressed nearly every day
  • No longer having the desire to partake in activities you once enjoyed
  • Noticing significant changes in your weight and appetite
  • Being unable to sleep
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Becoming easily agitated
  • Feeling worthless and hopeless
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Experiencing thoughts of suicide


People with winter-pattern SAD may experience all of the above symptoms, plus the following: 

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, especially indulging in too many carbohydrates
  • Extreme weight gain
  • Withdrawing from society (“hibernating”)


If you have not been formally diagnosed with SAD but suspect you have it, it is best to seek treatment so that you can receive the help you need. 


How Can I Get a SAD Diagnosis?

If you believe you are experiencing SAD, do not be afraid to seek professional help. Your first move should be to consult with your health care provider or mental health specialist. They will ask you to fill out a questionnaire to determine if your symptoms meet the criteria for this disorder. Some of the criteria include:


  • Experiencing symptoms associated with Major Depression. 
  • Having depressive episodes only during specific seasons, particularly during winter or summer, for at least two consecutive years. It is important to note that not all people with this disorder experience symptoms each year. That is why it is crucial to consult with a professional. 
  • These depressive episodes must be more common than other episodes the person experiences at other times of the year. 


Although it may be difficult to find out that you have SAD, it is best to have an official diagnosis so that you can commence your treatment journey. 


The 4 Main Types of Treatment for SAD

According to Dr. Kelly Rohan, psychologist and SAD expert, there is currently no cure for this disorder. While this is not the answer we want to hear, the good news is that there are effective treatments to help mitigate the effects of SAD. Treatment falls into four main categories that can be used alone or combined:


  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Light therapy
  • Antidepressants
  • Vitamin D


Always talk to your doctor about which treatment(s) work best for you since there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing mental illness. 


1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that is geared to help people deal with challenges. People with SAD usually participate in this type of therapy for six weeks, and it is split into two weekly group sessions. If you partake in CBT to treat SAD, you may be asked to replace your negative thoughts about the winter, such as the thought of darkness, with more uplifting ones. 


Additionally, you may be asked to engage in behavioral activation, which can help you plan out engaging indoor and outdoor activities; this can help fight loss of interest. 


2. Light Therapy

If you participate in light therapy, you will be asked to sit in front of a very bright light box, normally 10,000 lux, each day for approximately 45 minutes. The treatment will begin first thing in the morning, starting in the fall all the way into spring. Although these boxes are 20 times brighter than average indoor lights, they can filter out damaging UV light, so it is a safe treatment modality for most people. 


It is important to note that individuals with certain eye diseases or taking certain medications may need to use alternative treatment. 


3. Antidepressants

Since SAD can cause disturbances in your serotonin activity, you may be prescribed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). This medication can significantly boost your mood, giving you the willpower you need to complete everyday tasks. However, all medications come with side effects, so it is vital to have a candid conversation with your doctor about the potential risks you may experience. 


4. Vitamin D

If you live with a vitamin D deficiency and are diagnosed with SAD, you can opt for supplements to boost your levels. However, there is controversy in the community because some experts believe that taking vitamins to increase vitamin D levels is similar to light therapy. This is why it is best to speak to your doctor before making any drastic changes to your lifestyle. 


The above four treatment options can help reduce the negative effects of SAD, and it is best to consult with a professional to discuss what works best for you. If you do not take charge of your mental health disorder, you may begin to rely on bad habits. 


The Relationship Between SAD and Substance Abuse

When it starts getting dark earlier, and the symptoms of SAD creep up, some people turn to illicit substances, such as drugs or alcohol, to self-medicate. Although self-medication can initially seem harmless, it can quickly develop into an addiction that is hard to reverse. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 9.2 million people who struggle with mental illness turn to an addictive substance at some point to find relief. 


If you or a loved one suffers from SAD and substance use disorder, both conditions must be treated at the same time to get to the root of the problem. Staying at a well-rounded treatment center can help. 


Treatment is Within Reach at Ardu Recovery Center

If you or someone you know is living with an overwhelming mental illness, such as SAD, and an addiction, it is best to reach out to Ardu Recovery Center. We welcome people from all backgrounds with open arms, and our main priority is to help our residents reclaim their lives. We offer dual diagnosis treatment that combines mental health treatment with addiction treatment, ensuring a successful recovery. 


Please reach out to us with any questions you may have. We are located in scenic Provo, Utah.