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Depression and seasonal affective disorder: facts and symptoms

November 10, 2021 • read

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Depression and seasonal affective disorder: facts and symptoms

We all experience feeling sad sometimes. When something challenging happens, feeling down for a while is part of grieving. But, feeling sad is different from having depression. And, if you feel depression creeping up at the same time every year, that’s something different too, called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). So what’s the difference between depression and seasonal affective disorder, and what are the main signs and symptoms to watch for? Here we break it all down for you.

What is depression?

Depression is a prolonged feeling of deep sadness accompanied by disinterest in things that usually make you happy. When you’re depressed, the sadness isn’t always connected to an upsetting life event – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or personally impactful.

What are the symptoms of depression?

If you think you might have depression, you’re not alone. One in four Canadians will experience a period of depression that requires treatment once in their life. The silver lining is that there are lots of ways to get help. If you’re wondering whether you might have depression, here are some warning signs.

Sleep problems

Trouble sleeping and depression coexist in two ways. People with insomnia are much more likely to develop depression over time than people without sleep problems. On the other hand, trouble sleeping is a symptom of depression. Because they’re so closely linked, the root cause and the symptom are hard to differentiate. Regardless of which comes first, sleep problems such as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much can cause mood disturbances and are a common sign of depression.

Loss of interest in things you usually like

It’s normal for the things you’re interested in to change over time. We all grow out of hobbies and interests. But everyone has long-standing hobbies — maybe you cook or love to jog. When you stop doing those things because they don’t feel good anymore, it could be a symptom of depression. Loss of interest keeps people from socializing or showing up for work.

Appetite changes

Some people with depression experience weight loss due to a lack of appetite. The opposite can also be true and a person will overeat, causing weight gain. If you’re experiencing unexplained fluctuations in your body weight, consider whether the changes could be a red flag for your mental health.

Emotional outbursts

Sadness and melancholy are two well-known aspects of depression. Studies show that anger is connected to depression too. Men are especially likely to feel moody and irritable when they’re depressed. Since depression is a mood disorder, it prevents you from processing and expressing emotions in a healthy way.

Lethargy

Lethargy, simply put, is a lack of energy. When you’re depressed, you feel lethargic even if you haven’t been physically exerting yourself. Lethargy is noticeable both physically and mentally. People with depression often report:

  • Feeling tired
  • Slowed movement
  • Poor concentration
  • Slowed thinking
  • Slowed speech

Thoughts of suicide

When your outlook is clouded by sadness, sometimes thoughts of death arise. In some severe cases, depression can lead to suicide. If death or dying has been on your mind, remember that the feelings you’re having are momentary. Suicide is a permanent response to a temporary problem.

People who feel like harming themselves or others require immediate help from a therapist or care team. If you feel suicidal, reach out to a friend, crisis hotline, or go to your local hospital emergency room for help – all of these options offer no judgment, and are simply here to help you get better.

Risky behaviour

Although risky behaviour seems to be most common in adolescents, the core driver is the same. It happens when you take unnecessary risks, often putting yourself in harm’s way. Risky behaviours can be relieving in the moment because they provide a distraction from painful thoughts and emotions. But, the rewards are short-lived, and the dangers can be great. Examples of risky behaviour include:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Gambling
  • Speeding while driving
  • Drug misuse
  • Fighting or violence

Substance abuse

Abusing drugs or alcohol is a form of self-medication. It provides a temporary escape from feelings of sadness and emptiness. Over time, excessively drinking or using drugs can actually make mental illness worse. Overconsumption is dangerous for both the physical and mental health of someone with depression.

Unexplained pain

When you feel happy, you might get butterflies in your stomach. Negative emotions affect your physical body too. If you experience chronic pain, it’s likely a reflection of what’s going on inside your head since chronic pain is directly correlated to poor mental health. Pain arises when someone is depressed, and depression can set in when someone experiences pain. Mental illness translates to physical pain in lots of different ways such as:

  • Back pain
  • Shoulder and neck tension
  • Migraines
  • Restless legs
  • Stomach aches
  • Stiff joints

Difficult life events

Despite our best efforts, sometimes we don’t bounce back from hard times as fast as we’d like. Difficult or stressful life events like the death of a loved one or divorce bring up challenging emotions. If your sadness feels like it’s lingering too long, you might need support. “Too long” is qualified as more than half of each day, for over two weeks, and hard times can trigger periods of depression.

Thankfully, you can seek help when you start to feel this way, and you can help yourself by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness partnered with meditation has been known to improve the symptoms of depression, and there are all different kinds of meditation you can try. Headspace, for example, offers meditation for sadness where you learn to allow the thoughts and feelings of sadness to arise, and then let them go. The theory behind this is that by experiencing negative thoughts and feelings in a calm, clear way, you’re able to move through sadness more easily.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is more than just feeling sad because spring and summer are over and it’s cold out. SAD is a type of recurring depression that’s linked to less daylight and happens specifically in late fall or winter, prompting a biochemical imbalance in the brain.

What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

If you think you might suffer from seasonal affective disorder, there are many ways to get help. Although not everyone will experience the same seasonal affective disorder symptoms, here are the most common ones to watch out for.

Hypersomnia (oversleeping) and daytime fatigue

There’s a difference between enjoying sleep and oversleeping. Hypersomnia is when a person sleeps nine or more hours during a 24-hour period. Seasonal affective disorder patients report frequent hypersomnia throughout fall and winter, and still feel tired when they wake up as well as throughout the day.

Increased appetite and weight gain

While it’s not uncommon to experience an increase in appetite and weight gain during the darker, colder months, both of these are also symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. When it comes to SAD, a more voracious appetite is linked to the biological response to a seasonal drop in serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps control hunger. Those with SAD especially crave complex carbohydrates like pasta and bread. The reason? Complex carbs cause levels of an amino acid to rise in the brain that releases serotonin, which in turn boosts your mood.

Decreased sexual interest

It’s normal to experience changes in your sex drive, however, consistently decreased sexual interest isn’t. Seasonal affective disorder affects your mood and libido, which means it’s not uncommon for sex to be one of the last things on your mind – and that’s okay. You should know that many people with SAD experience this too, and help is available to get to the root cause of decreased sexual interest prompted by seasonal affective disorder.

Thoughts of suicide

Like depression, thoughts of suicide can arise with seasonal affective disorder – and these thoughts should never be brushed off as just a case of the “winter blues”. Thoughts of suicide require immediate help from a therapist or emergency care team. Unlike depression, however, there’s another treatment method for those with SAD called bright light therapy, where patients sit or work near a light therapy box that mimics natural outdoor light. One study even showed that 67% of seasonal affective disorder patients with thoughts of suicide who were treated with bright light therapy responded positively to it, while 45% showed a reduction in their SIGH-SAD suicide item score.

Disinterest in socializing

As social beings, regular socializing is an important part of your overall health. Because SAD affects your mood, there can be a domino effect of sadness and feeling like you don’t want to socialize with other people because you don’t have the energy, feel down, and just aren’t feeling great overall.

Difficulty concentrating

It can be tough to concentrate at the best of times, but when you pile on the other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder including depression and sleep problems, concentration becomes even more challenging. Whether it’s work, school, or even just trying to remember what a family member told you the other day, it’s known to negatively affect your concentration.

What is light therapy and does it help with SAD?

Light therapy is the exposure to artificial light. During light therapy, people sit or work near a light therapy box for 30 minutes a day with a brightness that imitates natural outdoor light. Light therapy for winter depression like SAD has a positive effect on brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, which is why it works well for those who experience seasonal affective disorder. It should be noted, however, that this kind of therapy should never be done without consulting a healthcare provider as there can be negative side effects.

Can you have both seasonal affective disorder and depression?

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression and while people with SAD experience mood changes similar to depression, SAD is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted specifically by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in late fall and winter.

Unfortunately, depression and seasonal affective disorder are all too common an experience for Canadians, but they don’t need to control your life. Help is available from the comfort of home with Maple, and you don’t have to get on a waitlist to receive care. Speak to a Canadian-licensed mental health therapist who can diagnose and manage common mental health conditions as well as prescribe medication, if necessary. You don’t have to feel like getting help is beyond reach, and you also don’t have to feel alone. Get started with Maple from your phone, tablet, or computer today.

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