Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Frequently Asked Questions

If you experience a seasonal sadness during the winter months, you’re not alone. Up to 11% of Minnesotans have seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

WHAT is SAD, and HOW can it be treated?

University of Minnesota Physicians Broadway Family Medicine Clinic resident physician Melissa Pavek, MD, answers some frequently asked questions about seasonal affective disorder.

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What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as “winter depression,” is a mood disorder with a seasonal pattern. It is typical for people with SAD to begin experiencing depressive symptoms in the autumn and winter and begin to feel better in the spring or summer.

Scientists think SAD is associated with decreased sunlight in the winter months.

Sunlight is responsible for telling our brains when to be awake and when to sleep. Some studies show our wake-sleep cycle is linked to the chemicals in our brain that are related to feelings of happiness or sadness.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

  • Depressed mood
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or guilty
  • Loss of interest in things you typically enjoy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Eating too much or not enough
  • Having thoughts about harming yourself or others

What is the difference between seasonal affective disorder and depression?

Seasonal affective disorder is a specific type of depression. Depression is an “umbrella term,” and many different types of depression can fall into this category.

Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by symptoms of depression that occur during the autumn and winter months, and not at other times of the year.

What should I do if I think I might have seasonal affective disorder?

Talk with your doctor. There are many options for treatment. Your doctor can help you figure out which option(/s) would be right for you.

Call the clinic at 612-302-8200 to schedule an appointment.

What are the treatment options for seasonal affective disorder?

There are a number of treatment options, including light therapy, medication therapy, and/or behavioral health therapy.

LIGHT THERAPY: Light therapy can be done at home or work. It does not require a prescription. A 10,000 lux white, fluorescent light can be purchased for as little as $30. Some insurance companies will cover the cost, if a doctor provides a letter of medical necessity. Studies have shown that daily light therapy can improve symptoms for up to 60% of people with SAD.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends following these guidelines for light therapy:

  • People should be positioned about 12-18 inches from a source of 10,000 lux of white, fluorescent light without UV wavelengths.
  • Therapy should last for 30 minutes each morning.
  • Eyes must be open, although it is not necessary to stare at the light.|
  • Relapse can be prevented by continuing light therapy throughout winter.
  • Light therapy can be used to prevent depressive symptoms, if begun in early autumn in future years.

MEDICATION THERAPY: Your doctor may discuss with you the possibility of starting a medication, such as those typically used for depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that these medications are about as effective as light therapy.

BEHAVIORAL HEALTH THERAPY: Your doctor may also refer you to a behavioral health provider. Studies show that people who participate in behavioral health therapy have significant improvements in symptoms; and, therapy may also help prevent future episodes of seasonal affective disorder.

If you have had thoughts of hurting yourself, do not wait for symptoms to get worse. Get help NOW! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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