When winter sets in and you’re feeling down, it might be difficult to know whether it’s a temporary mood or the type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Mental health professionals may diagnose SAD by finding out more about a patient’s symptoms. The physician or mental health provider might ask specific questions or give patients a questionnaire to complete at their appointment.
Since SAD was first described in 1984 and later classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a subset of major depressive disorder, researchers and clinicians have observed which symptoms could indicate SAD. These symptoms can help determine whether treatment is needed, and if so, what type or types.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression is marked by the following symptoms:
- “Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
For winter-pattern SAD, additional specific symptoms may include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like ‘hibernating’)”
Importantly, the NIMH notes that not everyone with SAD experiences all of these symptoms. Symptoms typically last up to four to five months during the year. People who have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder are more likely to experience SAD, according to the NIMH website.
“In most cases, SAD symptoms start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer; this is known as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression,” according to the NIMH website. “Some people may experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months; this is called summer-pattern SAD or summer depression and is less common.”
When treating patients, mental health providers may look for symptoms of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder and determine if there’s a seasonal onset and remission. According to an article published in the American Family Physician, symptoms such as increased need for sleep, carbohydrate cravings, and extreme fatigue are often associated with winter-onset SAD, helping clinicians determine a diagnosis.
As with many mental health disorders, misconceptions can prevent people from seeking care. If you’re experiencing these symptoms of SAD and want to know whether you might have the condition, talk with your physician or a mental health professional.
“The most common misconception is that it is ‘just’ winter blues and not that big of a deal,” Dr. Jeff Temple, a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Fortune magazine. “On the contrary, it impacts millions of Americans with symptoms consistent with major depression.”
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