“It’s really prominent during this time of the year because (of the) shorter days, less sunlight for longer periods of time, and so as we go into the winter, it’s more likely to affect those that aren’t able to get outside maybe and get that warm weather feel or the sunshine, especially in the northern states,” said Julie Manuel, clinical program manager at Kettering Health Behavioral Medical Center.
Seasonal affective disorder can happen in both people with an underlying mood disorder, like depression, and people without an underlying mood disorder, said Dr. Mark Williams, a primary care provider at Premier Health Primary Care - Beavercreek.
Symptoms can include sadness, sleeping more, decreased energy, irritability and poor motivation, he said.
Doctors say it’s more serious than simply the “winter blues.”
“When we start to experience seasonal affective disorder, it is a more intense feeling of sadness, intense feelings, loss of energy, loss of interest in activities, so you tend to isolate yourself or withdrawal from social settings that you would not normally do,” Manuel said.
About six in every 100 people report experiencing seasonal affective disorder, said Ashley Karpinski, a licensed therapist and director of behavioral health care delivery for CVS Health and Aetna. CVS Health’s minute clinics and select health hubs can provide screenings and/or visits with mental health professionals.
“It’s common in older teens and young adults, especially in that early 20s, and then women are unfortunately about four times more likely than males to develop (seasonal affective disorder),” Karpinski said.
For people with other forms of mental illness, Karpinski said those disorders can become exacerbated this time of year.
There are several types of treatments, doctors say, including light therapy with a bright light and/or a dawn simulator that replicates the rising of the sun.
“It’s sitting with a bright light, usually somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 LUX, which is how we characterize the brightness of light, for about 30 to 60 minutes a day,” Williams said. “It works better if you get that bright light early in the morning.”
Williams uses light therapy for himself and begins using it once the time changes in the fall.
“I start using my light because I know it’s coming,” Williams said.
Routines such as set times for going to bed and waking up, along with regular exercise, no caffeine after 3 p.m., and no alcohol at night can help sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, Williams said.
People should still seek help from their primary care physician or other health provider if the symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder are persistent and/or creating disruptions in their lives.
“I think anytime that you are feeling progressively sad or more sad than normal for no particular reason for two or three weeks, you probably ought to seek help,” Williams said.
Williams said patients can start with a visit to their primary care physician. With the need for more mental health professionals in the health care sector, many primary care physicians are filling in that gap.
“Don’t ever be afraid to seek help,” Karpinski said. “Mental health is one of those things where you don’t have a simple blood test to tell us, ‘Yeah, I have it or I don’t.’”
Even with the tips for ways to help improve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder on their own, some people still don’t find relief for their symptoms and need the help of a therapist or physician.
“It’s really important that you seek help,” Karpinski said. Many people think of medication, she said, but there are other forms of help that professionals can give, such as counseling or guidance with vitamin supplements.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder
Not everyone with seasonal affective disorder has the same symptoms, but according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, those symptoms can include:
- Sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of appetite
- Irritability and agitation