Recognizing and Treating Seasonal Depression
Shorter days, decreasing sunlight, and erratic temperatures mark the changing of the seasons. While it’s easy to look forward to sweater weather and cups of hot cocoa, it’s also possible to experience a dip in mood and energy level once the leaves fall. Otherwise known as seasonal depression, this condition can affect an individual’s relationships, work performance, and overall outlook. Here, Cary Bayless, a therapist at Parkridge Valley Adult & Senior Campus, discusses how to spot seasonal depression and seek the necessary treatment.
By Mary Beth Wallace
“There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health and conditions like depression. If you think you may be experiencing seasonal depression, please seek help – there is no shame in that. By ignoring the problem and not getting the help you need, you may only make matters worse.”
– Cary Bayless
Seasonal depression is a type of depression.
Seasonal depression isn’t a new term, but you might be more familiar with its other name: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. “Seasonal depression used to be its own diagnosis (referred to as seasonal affective disorder), but now it’s thought of as a specifier, or subtype, for depression,” says Bayless. “The key difference between depression and seasonal depression is that with seasonal depression, an individual’s depression cycle is based on the time of year.” In other words, the depressive episodes coincide with a specific season – typically fall and winter, when the level of sunlight starts to reduce. Seasonal depression can also occur in the spring, but these cases are rarer.
Seasonal depression is caused by a number of factors.
Researchers have yet to determine an exact cause for seasonal depression, although the sun does seem to play a major role. Bayless shares, “Studies have found that when we’re exposed to less sunlight, the brain produces less serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps moderate mood), and a shortage of serotonin can trigger depression.” Females may be more at risk for seasonal depression than men, with the condition often starting in young adulthood. Those living in countries farther from the equator may also have a higher risk.
“We all have varying levels of biological, psychological, and social factors that can contribute to depression,” Bayless adds. “Family history is a big one, but so too is an individual’s level of social interaction.”
Seasonal depression doesn’t look the same in everyone.
Just as symptoms of depression vary from person to person, seasonal depression presents differently depending on the individual. Common symptoms include lack of energy or motivation, increased fatigue, weight gain, difficultly concentrating, and lost interest in activities that once brought pleasure. “One trait that is often overlooked – but is very important – is withdrawal,” Bayless shares. “When an individual isolates himself or herself from family and friends, missing church, work, and other social events, it’s a telltale sign of depression.”
Seasonal depression can be treated.
According to Bayless, the best treatment for seasonal depression is a combination of good psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. “Thankfully, here in Chattanooga, we have many qualified professionals in these fields,” he says. Bayless suggests that therapy is a great place to start, and if medication is needed, visiting a primary care doctor or psychiatrist can prove beneficial. As no laboratory tests can diagnose this condition, your doctor will likely ask a series of questions regarding family medical history, timing of symptoms, and level of social connection, and then create an appropriate treatment plan.
Other strategies for easing seasonal depression include staying active – both physically and socially, getting outside when possible, and developing seasonal interests. Being proactive by keeping a busy schedule can help stave off symptoms. Most importantly, be honest about how you’re feeling with your loved ones. “If you find yourself losing interest in the people and things that used to bring you joy, address it,” says Bayless. “Don’t isolate yourself; stay connected and lean into your community.” HS