The changing seasons take a larger toll on your mental health than you might think. If you find yourself feeling unbearably sad during the fall and don’t know why, then it might be a more serious condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

This type of disorder is more than just feeling down because the days are getting shorter, but rather a condition that can cause serious depression and may even lead to suicidal thoughts. Knowing the difference could save your life and get you the help you need.

More Than Just the Winter Blues

SAD — sometimes called seasonal depression — is a type of depression that follows the changing of the seasons. People with SAD tend to feel worse during late fall when the days become shorter but feel better during the spring when the days become longer.

SAD can completely change a person’s mood. While in the spring and summer, you might have had the energy to accomplish all you need to do, during the fall and winter, you might feel irritable and sluggish.

For some, SAD can also cause depression during the spring and summer, though it’s not as common. People who experience SAD during the warmer months experience similar symptoms to those in the winter, like feeling tired and moody.

Symptoms to Watch Out For

SAD symptoms include having low energy, disruption in sleep cycles, feeling apathetic about activities you once enjoyed, changes in appetite, and having difficulties concentrating. Additionally, you might feel irritated, hopeless, guilty, or worthless. You might even have frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

SAD symptoms in the winter include oversleeping, appetite changes leaning toward food high in carbohydrates, weight gain, and tiredness. SAD symptoms for the spring and summer can include insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss, agitation and, anxiety. These symptoms should be taken seriously as problems can worsen if not treated.

Signs that SAD has gotten worse include social withdrawal, substance misuse, problems at work and school, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

The Causes of SAD

Though there isn’t a definitive cause, there are things that can contribute to symptoms. During the change in seasons, the reduced level of sunlight can affect your circadian rhythm, also known as your biological clock. This is the part of your body that regulates sleep. Since your internal clock is disrupted by the lack of sunlight, it also affects your mood, sleep, and hormone levels.

Another cause is a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that contributes to feelings of happiness. When the amount of sun is lowered, it affects your serotonin levels and can cause depression to worsen.

Melatonin is another factor that plays into seasonal affective disorder. Melatonin is a chemical that helps you sleep. The shortening days might be signaling your brain to release more melatonin than necessary which causes you to feel sluggish during the winter.

You Might Be at Risk

Many factors play into how the seasons affect you. Your risk for developing SAD increases depending on your family history, environmental factors, and mental health disorders you might already have.

You are at higher risk for SAD if you have:

You are also at risk for SAD if you live far from the equator or in a cloudy region.

Depending on your comorbid mental health disorders, SAD might manifest differently. In mood disorders like bipolar, the changing of seasons might worsen your manic or depressive symptoms. Consider what you know about your mental health when seeking a diagnosis and treatment.

Treatments for SAD

There are plenty of ways to treat SAD once you’ve received a diagnosis. Phototherapy, also known as light therapy, is a common way people treat SAD during the winter months. Vitamin D supplements can also improve symptoms of SAD because they give you vitamins you miss out on during shorter days.

When you can, spend time outdoors as much as possible. Open the drapes in the office or at home to increase the amount of sunlight in the room.

Don’t Wait to Get Help

SAD symptoms can escalate if you wait on getting treatment, so it’s important to look for help right away. There’s no need to try and tough it out. Seasonal affective disorder can lead to using drugs or alcohol to cope, or leave you feeling hopeless, thinking suicide is the only option.

The first step is seeking help from a health care professional. They will ask you questions about your symptoms regarding mood changes. They’ll rule out any other possible mood disorders and then determine your treatment.

There are many options for treatment — from therapy to medication — as well as steps you can take on your own.

Seasonal affective disorder is a serious mental health condition that affects people during the fall and winter. Pay attention to your mood changes this fall and consider reaching out for help. SAD can contribute to escalated substance use if symptoms are ignored while they become unmanageable. Talk to a health care professional about your symptoms. Getting the proper treatment can help symptoms that might feel impossible to handle. If you or a loved one is struggling with these mood changes during the colder months, don’t be afraid to reach out to Cornerstone Healing Center. We offer counseling services to all of our clients. If you’re concerned that you or your loved one might have developed a substance use disorder as a result of seasonal depression, contact our facility for treatment. Reach out before it’s too late. To learn more about the services we offer — from partial hospitalization to intensive outpatient — contact us at (800)-643-2108 today.

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