Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms, Actions, Diagnosis

By Renetta Weaver | Oct 12, 2022

Written By Dr. Renetta Weaver
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Introduction: What is Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you noticed that your mood and motivation tend to shift with the seasons you are not alone. It is estimated that 50% of the population also experience these same changes. Lower mood and motivation can negatively impact your level of functioning and the things that used to come so easily, seem to fall off during the Fall. Things like getting out of bed, getting to work on time, having less patience and tolerance, feeling doom and gloom, and/or experiencing sadness/tearfulness increase the feelings of emotional heaviness and physical weight.
A number of factors contribute to people feeling this way, including when the person’s body clock (circadian rhythm) is out of sync with the seasonal changes in light and dark, changes in temperature, changes in sleep and decreased social contact. This condition is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD and it often occurs during the beginning of Fall and tends to last through the beginning of Spring. However it is important to note, according to NAMI, some people experience SAD during the Spring and Summer months.
Although there are differences in when and how people experience SAD, the common symptoms include changes in mood, changes in sleep, decreased socialization, and increased addictive behaviors. At the root of these factors is the way our brain processes serotonin levels, melatonin levels, and other neurotransmitters.
The Significance of SAD in Mental Health Treatment Programs
As providers we can anticipate that our clients might experience symptoms that are similar to those of major depression such as a loss of interest in activities, feeling sad or irritable, trouble concentrating and remembering things, and changes in weight, appetite, and sleep patterns.
The significance of Seasonal Affective Disorder is that the risk factors and behaviors increase for depression, anxiety, suicidality, drinking, drug use, and eating might only be experienced during 4-5 months of the year. It’s important to ask our clients about the onset of their current symptoms and any historical patterns to help you and your client gain more clarity, and generate an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.
Don’t forget the end of summer and the beginning of fall is also cuffing season. This means that summer friendships and romantic relationships might suddenly be ending and the associated grief can exacerbate the symptoms of SAD.

Treatments to Address Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder that are Highly Effective
Light therapy-This treatment is usually performed in the morning and offers a person a dosage of light that is significantly brighter than indoor light. There are different lightboxes and dosages of time that one can use. While this treatment has been successfully used to treat SAD since the 1980s, it doesn’t fit all. If you have an eye condition or other medical conditions this might not be a recommendation that is beneficial to you. As always, it is recommended that you get medical advice and instruction from your medical care provider(s).
Antidepressants-sometimes our brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin. The use of Antidepressants can bring the light back into our life. There are several SSRI and since medications can have side effects you might have to try different ones until you find the right one for your body. The goal is to find the balance between making you feel better and not making you feel worse. As always, it is recommended that you get medical advice and instruction from your medical care provider(s).
CBT- The goal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is to shift our negative thinking to more positive ones. We can do this by helping our clients to make positive associations with winter. For example, 1 thing I like about the current month is_______ because_______. Or using a gratitude journal to write 1 thing today that I am most thankful for is________. We can also help our clients use a mindfulness practice called Behavioral Activation. Behavioral Activation works by asking a client to list out 10 things they want to do or need to do. From that list, clients can rank them from easiest to hardest. Once that’s done clients can pick the easiest thing from that list and create a plan for carrying that out. For example, by this date____ I will_____ and I will know it’s done because_____ and when it’s done, I will feel______ I will celebrate it by_____ and I will let my accountability partner_________ know about this too. This is just an example, so please feel free to modify this for your practice.
Socialization- It is not good for man to be alone. So even if you are an introvert like me, it’s important for us not to be hermits. Yes, we need alone time to recharge but being around others helps our brain to produce oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Being intentional about planning outings with the right people, places and things in mind is healthy for our body, mind, and spirit.
Eating- There are certain foods that have an effect on our mood. When planning your meals look at the ingredients and research their benefits. Is there something that you want to remove from or incorporate into your eating plan? As always, it is recommended that you get medical advice and instruction from your medical care provider(s).
Movement- In the past we used to think that there was a separation between the mind and the body. But now we know better and many healing modalities involve some form of movement. So we know that there are many benefits to moving including feeling happier. That’s because exercise helps our brain to produce those feel-good hormones.
Conclusion
Symptoms-If you or someone you know is not experiencing changes in functioning and/or experiences changes in mood, sleep, socialization, and addictive behaviors the first thing to remember is that it’s ok to not be ok. Also, remember that you don’t have to suffer in silence and that help is available. Reach out for help from a trained therapist.
Actions-As mentioned above, schedule an appointment with a therapist who can work in partnership with you to determine if you are experiencing SAD or another diagnosis. Once you have the correct diagnosis you can explore your treatment options. Then it is up to you to take action on the plan.
Diagnosis- There is a tool called the Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire or SPAQ that was developed in 1984 by American psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal and his National Institute of Mental Health colleagues. You can use this tool in conjunction with an interview with your therapist to help you develop more clarity about your SAD or other diagnoses.

Resources: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8123881/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Renetta D. Weaver is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board-Certified Bariatric Counselor. Dr. Renetta founded “Regain No More” which provides pre and post-Bariatric Education and Clinical support. She is a blogger for Clinicians of Color Connect with her at renetta@regainnomore.com.

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Renetta Weaver

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