7 Myths and Truths About Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)by Natasha Tracy - November 14th, 2017
Many people have heard of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD. It’s commonly thought of as a disorder where people are happy in the summer and sad in the winter. And while this is true in some cases, there is a lot more you need to understand about SAD. Read these seven seasonal affective disorder myths and truths to learn more – don’t miss the self-help tips at the bottom, either.
1. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Is a Distinct Disease
False – Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is actually a descriptor (also known as a specifier) of another illness. It can be thought of as describing a seasonal pattern of mood disturbance. Therefore, a person would not be diagnosed with “seasonal affective disorder” itself but, rather, a mood disorder such as major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.
2. Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Dictated By Where You Live
True and False – There is a relationship to seasonal mood patterns and latitude. This holds true for both the “winter blues” (general sadness that is not severe enough to be an actual mental illness) and SAD patterns of mental illness. For example:
• At the 25th parallel north (Island of Key Largo, Florida, etc.), seasonal affective disorder has a 2.8% incidence rate and the winter blues happens to about 7.5% of people.
• At the 35th parallel north (California, Arizona, Texas, etc.), seasonal affective disorder has a 5% incidence rate and the winter blues happens to about 13.9% of people.
• At the 45th parallel north (Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, etc.), seasonal affective disorder has a 7.2% incidence rate and the winter blues happens to about 20.2% of people.
However, while there is a relationship between where you live and whether you experience a seasonal pattern to mood, your location does not dictate this, but, rather, puts you at a higher or lower risk.
3. Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Just About Depression
False – Seasonal affective disorder does, typically, have a depression component but it can have manic/hypomanic (elevated mood) components as well. In other words, those with bipolar disorder can also have a seasonal pattern to mood; more severe SAD cases tend to be part of bipolar disorder. In fact, it’s recommended that anyone who has been identified as having seasonal depression should also be screened for hypomanic/manic symptoms. This is because both side of the cycle, if present, must be treated in order for SAD treatment to be successful. What does up, must come down.
4. Seasonal Affective Disorder Is Only a Problem in the Winter
False – Fall/winter depression is the most common form of SAD but spring/summer depression is also possible. If a person experiences depression in the fall/winter, he or she is likely to experience excessive sleep, increased appetite and a craving for carbohydrates (these are known as atypical depression symptoms). If a person experiences depression in the spring/summer he or she is likely to experience insomnia and loss of appetite (these are known as typical depressive symptoms).
5. Lightboxes Always Effectively Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
False – Lightboxes are often an effective treatment for those who experience a mood disturbance due to decreased sunlight and, in fact, often produce a positive response within only one-two weeks. These lights mimic sunlight by putting out 10,000 lux of light. A person with SAD sits under the lightbox (not looking directly into it) in the morning to decrease SAD symptoms. That said, not every person responds to a lightbox and some people respond adversely. For example, those with seasonally affected bipolar disorder, may actually experience symptoms of mania or hypomania due to use of a lightbox. It should also be noted that lightboxes are often used in conjunction with medications for the best result.
6. The More Time the Lightbox Is Used, the Better for SAD
False – Lightboxes are an effective replacement for the missing sunlight of the winter, but simply more hours sitting under the lightbox is not necessarily better. Research shows that lightboxes should be used in the morning and that afternoon, evening and night use is ineffective. Usually, 30-60 minutes a day is therapeutically beneficial.
7. Lightboxes and Medications Are the Only Treatments for SAD
False – While lightboxes and medications can effectively treat seasonally affected moods for many people, other treatments can be helpful as well. For example, as with standard major depressive disorder, adjunct psychotherapy, can be effective. Dawn simulators that gradually turn on to wake a person and mimic sunlight first thing in the morning can also be useful.
Self-Help Recommendations for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD
There are some self-help recommendations from S. Nassir Ghaemi, MD, Mood Disorder Program Director, to be used as precautions against mood-affected illness.
In the fall/winter:
• Lift the bedroom shades in the morning.
• Minimize sunglasses use for at least part of the day.
• Seek the sun.
• Take a walk at noon on sunny days.
In the spring/summer:
• Use light-blocking shades and pull them down to limit direct sunlight in the bedroom (use an eye mask if you don’t have light-blocking shades).
• Avoid the sun.
• Wear sunglasses outside at all times.
Self-help recommendations for seasonal affective disorder should be tried before other treatments as those changes alone may help less severe cases of SAD. If these SAD self-help recommendations don’t work, it’s time to consider combining them with other therapies.
If you think you have mood disorder with a seasonally-affected component, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
Ghaemi, S. Nassir, MD, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Facts and Misconceptions. December 22, 2016.
Natasha Tracey is a professional writer and author for Bipolar Burble. She currently worked as a freelancer for Kingsblog.