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  • Dr. Laura Pennavaria

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Understanding Seasonal Depression

Winter is a brutal time of year — days are short, nights are long, viruses run rampant, snow and slush blanket everything and the cold bites at you anytime you step outside. Although these things do an excellent job at dampening the mood for some, most are able to muddle through it or find a silver lining in the season. For others, however, this season comes with a more serious obstacle: seasonal affective disorder (SAD).


If your experience has been anything similar to mine, you have likely seen SAD mocked in the media as an over-dramatic way of describing discomfort during the winter months. In reality, though, SAD is a very real disorder that can cause individuals to develop severe depression for months on end. Typically starting between October and January, SAD lasts through the winter season and begins to cease as the calendar approaches spring. Symptoms closely mirror that of chronic depression, including low mood, low energy, overeating, oversleeping, irritability and isolation. While there isn’t a conclusive reason as to why individuals develop SAD, known risk factors include having a family history of depression, being young and being female.


Now, you are likely wondering how to figure out if you are suffering from SAD. Most people have bad days here and there, and people's moods are generally worse in the winter, so how can you tell if you are suffering actual depression? Some indicators to look for are the frequency at which these bad days occur and the severity of your feelings during your bad days. If you find yourself repeatedly having bad days and develop symptoms similar to those listed above, reach out to your DPC provider to discuss your options. If you begin to develop feelings of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate and reach out to a doctor immediately.


Fortunately, SAD has numerous treatment options. These include treatments used for chronic depression, like medication and counseling, as well as the unique treatment of light therapy. Lack of sunlight is a major culprit behind SAD, so special light boxes can be used to supplement one’s lack of exposure to daylight. Doctors usually recommend an exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white light for 20 to 60 minutes everyday — ideally in the morning. When purchasing a light therapy box, make sure the device is intended for SAD treatment and that it emits 10,000 lux. Indoor lighting is 20 times less intense, so it is essential that your light therapy box emits the recommended light level.


SAD is a real and present obstacle that millions of people face every year. Luckily, recent years have seen a wider acknowledgement of the disorder and its treatment options have become more accessible to patients. Facing the winter months alone can be hard, especially if you are suffering from SAD, so do not hesitate to reach out to your DPC provider or doctor if you believe you are struggling with seasonal depression. Additionally, if you or anyone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255 and/or call your doctor right away.

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