As the days get shorter and the weather cools, many people start to feel more sad than usual. Often called the “Winter Blues”, what people may be experiencing is a medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). But how do you know if what you are experiencing is just a dip in your mood, or when you should seek help? We sat down with Dr. Melissa Chappell, a Little Company of Mary physician, board-certified in internal medicine and psychiatrist to discuss the most common questions about the Winter Blues and SAD.
What is SAD?
Dr. Chappell describes SAD as a specific type of depression in which patients feel the symptoms of depression during a specific time of the year. Most commonly symptoms begin in early Fall and persist through Winter, and symptoms subside for the Spring and Summer. Less commonly, other patients have symptoms beginning in the Spring persisting through Summer with no symptoms in the Fall and Winter. SAD affects an estimated 4-6 million people in the US, and it affects more women than men.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Depressed mood
- Decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities
- Decreased concentration and energy
- For some people, suicidal thoughts
- Patients with a Fall onset tend to have increased sleep and increased appetite
- Those with a Spring onset tend have insomnia and decreased appetite
So how do you know if what you are experiencing is SAD? “I strongly encourage patients to come in for an evaluation if they are not feeling like themselves for two consecutive weeks or more,” said Dr. Chappell. “You know you should seek help if If your emotional state makes it harder to accomplish your normal routine for at least two weeks, and/or you are experiencing suicidal thoughts.”
Importantly, patients should not try to self-diagnose. “Distinguishing between SAD and other psychiatric conditions on your own can be so confusing and potentially dangerous. Let a psychiatric physician (psychiatrist) help you clarify things,” said Dr. Chappell.
SAD vs. Depression
You may wonder the difference between SAD and Depression (Major Depressive Disorder). Dr. Chappell let us know that it’s all about timing. Patients with Major Depressive Disorder can have mood symptoms at anytime of the year. Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder have symptoms only at specific times of the year–Fall through Winter or Spring through Summer–not both. “If you are having symptoms throughout the year but notice that you feel even worse during Fall/Winter, a thorough psychiatric evaluation can often help you to clarify your diagnosis,” said Dr. Chappell.
While the cause of SAD in unclear, a psychiatrist such as Dr. Chappell can help you to combat the symptoms. “Most patients who are accurately diagnosed and treated get better,” said Dr. Chappell. Treatments include increased exercise, medication options tailored to each patient, and light therapy. A psychiatrist will work with each individual patient to develop an appropriate treatment plan. With light therapy, patients use a special lamp with a very bright light (10,000 lux) at home for a recommended amount of time daily (often 30 minutes). Although often not covered by insurance, the light box can be a good investment for those with Fall/Winter onset to use before symptoms begin through the end of Winter.
If you believe you or someone you know may need to seek treatment for SAD, contact your primary care physician or a Little Company of Mary Psychiatrist Looking for a primary care physician or psychiatrist? Our Physician Match specialists can help. Call 708.423.3070.
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