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Seasonal Affective Disorder: More Than the Holiday Blues

Many of us in Naperville (IL) are familiar with the term “holiday blues”: feelings of anxiety, sadness or stress that might fall upon us in November and December and possibly into the start of the new year.

While not a clinically diagnosed condition, the holiday blues may arrive for different reasons. For some, reality might fall short of expectations of merriment, warmth and togetherness. For others, frenetic shopping, planning, cooking and scheduling might ignite a burnout. Striving to please people can lead to fatigue and depression as well. The holidays can also include extra alcohol consumption, which may impair our mood.

The holidays can be especially tough for those with an existing mood disorder. A 2021 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 60% of Americans with a mental illness felt that the holidays worsened their condition.

If we do begin to get the holiday blues, the best thing we can do is be self-aware and practice positive, healthy self-care. If the feelings persist or intensify for two weeks or longer, they may indicate the onset or return of seasonal affective disorder, a more-serious condition that can extend well into the new year and beyond.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a medically diagnosable and treatable form of clinical depression that develops during times of reduced sunlight. Different from the holiday blues, SAD recurs in regular cycles that interfere with daily thoughts and activities for periods from months to years.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has recently revised the term “seasonal affective disorder” to “major depressive disorder (MDD) ‘with seasonal pattern.’ ” However, as of this writing SAD remains the common and recognized reference in our daily vernacular.

On occasion a person in Naperville might experience SAD in spring and summer, but it is most frequent and pronounced in the shorter, darker days of fall and winter.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

  • persistent sadness
  • decreasing interest in enjoyed activities
  • low or slow energy
  • excessive sleeping
  • increasing isolation
  • weight gain and cravings for carb-rich food
  • difficulty concentrating
  • feeling hopeless, guilty or unworthy
  • problems at work or school
  • suicidal thoughts

Symptoms may begin as mild and become more severe as the dark and cold season in Naperville continues. For many people, symptoms also can begin to abate with the return of spring.

A SAD diagnosis will be based on an individual’s medical history and a thorough psychiatric evaluation. A primary physician might also suggest labs or tests to rule out other medical conditions as being causative. For example, hypothyroidism, an infection or chronic fatigue syndrome can have overlapping symptoms with SAD.

What Causes SAD?

More women than men are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. SAD is also more common among younger adults (18–35) than older ones.

SAD remains an area of continuing study. While definitive causes are still unknown, factors associated with this cyclical depression can include:

family history. If you have family members or relatives with a history of SAD or other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or chronic anxiety, the chance of developing SAD is believed to be higher.

existing condition. If you already have a condition such as major depression, bipolar disorder or a substance addiction, existing symptoms may be magnified as a result of compounding with SAD.

lowered serotonin and melatonin levels. The changes in weather and sunlight during late fall and winter can alter our internal chemicals that help to regulate our moods and sleep patterns. This can make us more susceptible to SAD.

unrelenting stress. If we remain under stress for too long without proper outlets or coping mechanisms, it too can initiate chemical changes that can increase our vulnerability to SAD.

geographic location. Equatorial areas have longer days and exposure to sunlight. Increasing distance north or south from the equator has been shown to correlate with rising rates of seasonal affective disorder. For example, one study found that 1%  of Floridians experienced SAD as compared with 9% of people living in Alaska.

Another study identified the Midwest as the most depressed U.S. region, with Indiana at #3, Michigan at #5, Minnesota at #7 and Illinois at #10. Vermont (#1) and West Virginia (#2) ranked highest.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): The Sun & Vitamin D

Sunlight is essential to our health and well-being. It supports our body’s production of Vitamin D, which contributes to essential biological factors such as healthy bones, proper calcium levels, reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. Vitamin D has been linked to better regulation of our blood sugar and blood pressure as well.

Sunlight also influences our circadian rhythm, which is our internal clock that responds to the sun’s dark-light cycle and helps us fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.

Sunlight’s benefits can extend even further to shaping our mood by boosting serotonin activity. A deficiency of Vitamin D from the sun can contribute to SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Treatment & Prevention

While diagnosed seasonal affective disorder can’t be prevented, it can be managed and controlled with proper treatment that alleviates symptoms. Treatment might include light therapy (phototherapy), medication and professional clinical counseling.

Light therapy uses a convenient, portable light box or lamp that mimics natural sunlight. The box or lamp contains fluorescent lights on a metal reflective base with a plastic screen on top to diffuse the light and filter out UV rays.

Sitting close enough to the light to absorb it for a set time (often 30 minutes at 10,000 lux of exposure) helps boost serotonin, melatonin and Vitamin D, among other effects. When used consistently, light therapy can often provide swift results, often working faster than other forms of treatment.

Medical treatment of SAD can include a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) prescribed by a psychiatrist or a primary physician. SSRIs treat depression by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They achieve this by blocking the reabsorption (reuptake) of serotonin into neurons. This makes more serotonin available for better transmission of messages between neurons.

In treating seasonal affective disorder, clinical counseling provides a safe, confidential space in which an individual can identify patterns of negativity that reinforce depression. The individual can talk through their struggles and, in doing so, replace troubling feelings and thoughts with skills and coping mechanisms that are healthy and constructive, an approach known as cognitive behavioral therapy. The benefits of counseling can be far-reaching into a person’s life.

Each of these approaches can help reduce the effects of SAD. Research also has found that combining a lightbox with other forms of treatment can support better management of symptoms.

Additional self-care measures that favor positive, strong mental health can include:

  • maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet
  • getting adequate sleep and rest
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • exercising regularly
  • observing personal boundaries
  • limiting or avoiding known causes of stress
  • seeking time with family and friends
  • traveling to sunnier climates if possible
  • scheduling events you look forward to
  • setting meaningful goals for the new year

Professional Counseling for Seasonal Affective Disorder Naperville (IL): Contact Us Today

Eunoia Counseling provides Naperville with professional clinical counseling that allows for personal pause, reflection, healing and growth in managing SAD. If you or someone you care about would like to further discuss counseling for SAD, we welcome you to contact us at (630) 340-8747 or