Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Are you struggling with the following symptoms?

  • depression with a fall or winter onset*
  • lack of energy
  • decreased interest in work or significant activities
  • increased appetite with weight gain
  • carbohydrate cravings*
  • increased sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness
  • social withdrawal
  • afternoon slumps with decreased energy and concentration*
  • slow, sluggish, lethargic movement*

*Specific to Seasonal Affective Disorder

If so, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. This disorder was identified and publicized in 1993 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Director of Seasonal Studies at the National Institute of Mental Health. Researchers estimate that approximately 17% of people living in the upper latitudes suffer periodic bouts of the winter blues. People who meet full diagnostic criteria for SAD in northern climes is estimated at 8%. Only 2% appear to suffer from SAD in the Sun Belt and those individuals probably avoid going outdoors. Women suffer from SAD three to four times more frequently than do men.

What to do if you are suffering from SAD or "the winter blues":

Light Therapy
Research tells us that light affects the receptors in the brain that produce serotonin. Serotonin levels affect mood. When an individual lacks full spectrum light, i.e. light which contains the same rainbow colors and near-ultraviolet light of sunlight, low mood or depression can occur. Those of us who reside in the northern regions of the continent receive very little exposure to sunlight due to winter weather and diminished hours of daylight. Light Therapy which involves daily exposure through the eyes to full-spectrum light is indicated. You can get this by going outdoors for approximately 30 minutes or more daily or by exposing yourself to artificially produced full-spectrum light. It has been recommended that exposure to full-spectrum light occur in the mornings in order to avoid wakefulness at night which sometimes can occur to later in the day exposure. You can create your own by using a grow light for plants inserted in a florescent light fixture or you can purchase your own in a price range of $200-$600. Exposure must be unimpaired--windows block out some ultraviolet light. Caution: never look directly at sunlight or any other form of full-spectrum light! When used as recommended, light from a full-spectrum light is not strong enough to cause sun damage to the individual.

*Caution: Individuals with cataracts or other eye problems should exercise caution in using light therapy. It is best to get medical approval before doing so. Individuals suffering from lupus or those with bi-polar disorder suffering a manic phase ought not use light therapy.

The Counseling Center has a full-spectrum light which is available for use by any member of the WSU community. Contact the secretary at 572-5790 for information about getting an appointment to use the light.

Other Therapies/Interventions:

In severe cases, physicians may prescribe a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zaloft), or citalopram (Celexa). SAD sufferers have also been prescribed trazodone (Desyrel). New antidepressant medications are constantly emerging on the market. Check with your physician on the appropriateness of medication use. There is detailed information on using anti-depressant medication for depression that can be accessed at the Information on Anti-Depressant Medication webpage.

Careful inclusion of complex carbohydrates (fruits, grains, potatoes, etc.) can provide what is necessary to stimulate serotonin levels. Too much of good thing (note the symptom of craving carbohydrates) can lead to that often occurring winter weight gain.

There is strong anecdotal evidence and a general belief among health researchers that exercise improves mood and self-esteem for a number of reasons. Exercise when combined with outdoor exposure to sunlight can prove very beneficial to those suffering from SAD.

Using counseling as a way to develop new ways of thinking, problem-solving and managing stress can be useful for particularly those struggling with poor attitude, self-defeating beliefs and behaviors. If you are a WSU student and interested in counseling or speaking to a counselor about SAD, go to Counseling Services, or contact us at 572-5790.

References used in this webpage:

  • SADAssociation - homepage of the world's longest established support organization for Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • The Depression Workbook, A Guide for Living with Depression and Manic Depression. By Mary Ellen Copeland, M.S. Published in 1992 by New Harbinger Publications.
  • "Seasonal Affective Disorder," an article by Norman E. Rosethal, M.D. in the December 8, 1993-Vol. 270, #22 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
  • "The Effect of Exercise on Depression, Anxiety and Other Mood States: A Review," an article by A. Byrn and D.G. Byrne in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, V. 17, #6.
  • "Questions and Answers about Light Therapy," a public information brochure from the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms.
  • Other references to check out:
  • Norman E. Rosenthal, MD. Winter Blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder and How to Overcome It. Guilford Press, NY. 1993.
  • Celeste A. Peters. Fight the Winter Blues, Don't Be Sad: Your Guide to Conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder. Script Publishing, Calgary. 1994.
  • Norman Rosenthal's website
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder: Winter Depression