seasonal affective disorder

Do You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

What it is, how to cope, and how to tell if you have it.

Daniel Kim

In New York, we actually had a proper fall this year. I feel as though I got full use out of my enormous array of fall jackets and thoroughly enjoyed day after crisp day of sunny weather, punctuated by brightly colored leaves falling on my shoulders.

That all changed overnight, and now it’s winter. We still have some sun, but the prospect of going outside each day is enough to send us all back to bed, ready to hibernate until the first thaw. But if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly acronymed SAD), fall can trigger depression that sometimes lasts throughout the cold, dreary months of winter.

SAD “is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern,” according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Technically, SAD could also be a pattern of depression that rolls in every summer, or every spring, though it’s usually associated with colder weather.

To be diagnosed, you must have experienced “major depression coinciding with specific seasons (appearing in the winter or summer months) for at least two years,” NIMH reports. Feelings of major depression include “feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; feeling hopeless or worthless; having low energy; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed,” and dealing with changes with sleep, appetite, weight, energy, concentration, and agitation level. Major depression can also include recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

If you have SAD, you may also be experiencing low energy levels in particular, as well as oversleeping, overeating, carb cravings, and social withdrawal—or, as NIMH puts it, you may also “feel like hibernating.”

SAD can affect us all, but you have higher chances of feeling this way if you’re a young woman, living far from the equator, with a family history of depression. Your chances are also higher if you already have depression or bipolar disorder.

If you think you might have SAD, a psychiatrist can help with diagnosis and treatment. The four main therapies and treatments for SAD include medication, light therapy, psychotherapy, and good old vitamin D.

Like all things, light therapy lamps vary in reliability and price, so if you’re looking to invest in a light therapy lamp, we’d trust the Wirecutter’s advice over anyone else’s out there on the WWW. Their favorite is the Carex Day-Light Classic Plus, which has a snazzy name and seems to strike a solid balance between not-incredibly-expensive and actually-does-its-job.

Does light therapy really work? “I think it’s very effective,” Katie Sharkey, an associate professor of medicine, psychiatry, and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, told Vox. “But I would recommend that people who have depressive symptoms get seen by someone who can collaborate with them on this treatment, just like you would with a pill or therapy.”

If you do opt for a light therapy device, be sure you use it correctly. If you sit in front of a light box too early in the day, you may wind up sleepy before your normal bedtime, and if you do it too late, you’ll likely have trouble falling asleep. When in doubt, consult a professional. But do it—don’t delay if you’re feeling down. “That’s a rule to live by: Take care of your mental health,” Sharkey added.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with SAD or other mental health issues, there is help out there, including a national hotline for mental health and substance abuse disorders. You don’t have to face it alone. 

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