Weather changes as the seasons shift from summer to fall to winter to spring are often a welcomed transition. Many people love the changing of the sky, the different colored leaves on the trees and the colder temperatures. To these people, the shifting seasons may signify change and new beginnings, but for many others, these changes (and especially the changes to the colder months) can be triggering. This can often cause seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Oftentimes, these seasonal changes occur around the holidays, making times of getting together around meals more challenging for those experiencing symptoms.

The grey skies and cold winter months can bring a somber mood to those who are diagnosed with the “winter blues” which is formally known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This disorder starts to become apparent in the fall, pique in the winter and resolve in the springtime, and is more apparent for individuals living in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast where grey skies are prominent 4-6 months out of the year. This disorder was first described in 1984 by Norman Rosenthal as a “syndrome characterized by recurrent depressions that occur annually at the same time each year.”  Seasonal affective disorder is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a separate condition. Instead it is listed as a specifier “with seasonal pattern” under major depressive disorder, recurrent and the bipolar disorders. This mood disorder, like depression and bipolar disorder can greatly affect an individual’s way of life, potentially causing havoc in relationships and work life. SAD is usually more common in the fall and winter, though it may occur during the spring and summer. Winter-onset SAD is more common and is often characterized by atypical depressive symptoms including; hypersomnia, increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates. Spring/summer SAD is more frequently associated with typical depressive symptoms including insomnia and loss of appetite.

Diagnostic Criteria for Seasonal Depression

In order for an individual to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), they must present with depressive symptoms that are more prominent during a specific season with a full remission throughout the rest of the year. These episodes during a specific season must be present for two consecutive years in a row and seasonal episodes should exponentially outnumber non-seasonal episodes.

Seasonal Depression and its Relation to Co-occurring Eating Disorders

Studies show that 60-90% of individuals diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder are women in their early 20’s, the same demographic that is primarily diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. Although there is no direct link between eating disorder and SAD per say, there are a lot of similarities between the populations affected by each disorder. Eating disorders are often triggered by mental health disorders such as depression. Eating disorder treatment centers usually see the highest increase in admissions during the winter months and many treatment centers hold their therapy activities outside in order to have the highest amount of sunlight exposure as possible. The stress of the holidays, gloomy skies, lower levels of serotonin and vitamin D during the winter months are known triggers for seasonal affective disorder and also can increase the risk of eating disorders.

Treatment for Seasonal Depression

There is no one-size-fits-all for seasonal depression. Like eating disorder treatment, seasonal affective depression treatment consists of many treatment modalities including pharmacotherapy such as SSRIs, light therapy and psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Studies have shown that light therapy can alleviate symptoms associated with SAD by approximately 50-80% with even higher results if tailored to an individual’s sleep wake cycle.

We’re Here for You

If you are experiencing seasonal depression, we are here for you at Center for Discovery. Our centers specialize in treatment for eating disorders, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment with unique treatment programs for every individual. Contact us today.

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