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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Published on February 12, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on February 24, 2024 at 8:01

Also known as seasonal affective disorder, SAD is a type of depression that begins in the fall or winter and ends in the spring or summer. More rarely, it can also start in the spring and end in the fall.

The symptoms are the same as for major depression:

  • Sad or irritable mood
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased appetite, especially for foods that are high in sugar or fat
  • Reduced interest in activities that you used to enjoy and decreased ability to feel pleasure

A person with this disorder may become isolated from their loved ones. They may also have a lot of trouble concentrating at work or school, for example.

In some cases, symptoms can become worse and lead to feelings of hopelessness and even suicidal thoughts.

Some people may feel a little more depressed during the winter months without actually suffering from SAD. The main difference is the depression's impact on the person's ability to function. With SAD, symptoms can interfere with everyday life.

Causes and triggers

Not everyone agrees on what causes SAD. However, many believe that decreased exposure to sunlight is the primary cause of this disorder. Others believe that doing fewer outdoor activities during the winter months may impact a person's mood and trigger SAD.

The following people are at higher risk of developing SAD:

  • Those who live in more northern parts of the world (e.g., Canada)
  • People with a personal or family history of mood disorders (e.g., major depression, bipolar disorder)
  • People aged between 20 and 30 years old.

Treatment

The following lifestyle changes can help improve or prevent the symptoms of SAD:

  • Adopt a sleep routine that enables you to benefit from as many hours of sunlight as possible.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and don't give into cravings for foods with a high sugar or fat content.
  • Exercise regularly, preferably outside and during the day to take in as much sunlight as possible.

If, despite these measures, you still feel depressed or suspect you may be suffering from SAD, please consult your health care provider. They'll be able to evaluate your symptoms and suggest appropriate treatment, if necessary.

The following options may be suggested:

  • Light therapy
    • This treatment consists in standing or sitting in front of a special lamp for a few minutes every day, preferably in the morning.
  • Medication such as an antidepressant
  • A consultation with a psychologist

When should I see a health care professional?

Consult a health care professional if you or a loved one experience any of the following:

  • Symptoms of depression or you think you may have SAD
  • Feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide

You can also get help by calling texting 9-8-8.
This helpline regroups several partners across Canada, including Hope for Wellness who offer specialized support for First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and Kids Help Phone.
If you or someone else is in danger, call 9-1-1.

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