On the fourth Thursday of this month, the smell of turkey, mashed potatoes, and other delicious foods will fill the air in homes and restaurants across the country. Some families and friends will be gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving, while others will give thanks from afar. Many are looking forward to this cozy fall holiday that, despite its controversial backstory, has come to represent full bellies and the expression of gratitude. However, if the Thanksgiving season is supposed to be a happy and celebratory time, what could be the reason that you are feeling depressed?
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
You may experience mood changes and feelings of sadness around the Thanksgiving season due to a disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), SAD is a form of major depressive disorder that has a seasonal pattern. Typically, people experience symptoms during the onset of the fall and winter seasons and start to feel better when spring rolls around. January and February are some of the most difficult months for some individuals with the disorder.
Be Aware of the Symptoms
It’s important to recognize that SAD, as it is currently understood by scientists, is not just a pang of temporary sadness that you will get over in a day or two. SAD is a reoccurring disorder that is characterized by distressing symptoms that can cause dysfunction in daily life for, according to the American Psychiatric Association, about 40% of the year. Approximately five percent of adults struggle with SAD in the United States.
It’s also important to note that SAD varies in severity. You may experience a milder form called subsyndromal S-SAD, while a friend may be fully incapacitated and unable to function. According to Depression Research and Treatment, a variety of symptoms that can manifest as SAD:
- Low energy
- Frequent crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tiredness and lethargy
- Sad mood and irritability
- Decreased activity levels
- Sleeping more than normal
- Weight gain due to overeating
- Withdrawal from social situations
- Craving carbohydrates and sugars
If any of these symptoms resonate with you, consider getting help. Depression can cause you to misuse substances to cope, and as a result, you can develop an addiction. Don’t wait until you need treatment in a dual diagnosis program to talk to someone.
The Biology of the Disorder
Scientists are not entirely sure what causes SAD. However, research generally points to a biochemical imbalance in the brain triggered by shorter photoperiods and reduced exposure to sunlight. This can through your sleep and wake cycles off. A study published in the American Family Physician by Stuart L. Kurlansik and Annamarie D. Ibay explains that SAD may be caused by a combination of biological factors including circadian phase delay/advance, retinal sensitivity to light, neurotransmitter dysfunction, genetic variations affecting circadian rhythms, and serotonin levels.
Another study similarly cites “neurotransmitters, hormones, circadian rhythm dysregulation, genetic polymorphisms” as important contributors to SAD. Psychological factors like vulnerability to stress may also be involved. Individuals with SAD have been found to have lower serotonin activity during the winter months. Vitamin D is thought to promote serotonin activity; thus, a deficiency from reduced sunlight exposure during the winter may exacerbate the condition. An overproduction of melatonin, a hormone associated with inducing sleepiness, is another indicator of SAD.
Other researchers hypothesize that the month you are born has something to do with SAD. A study published in Current Biology by Noah H. Green et al. exposed developing rats to different photoperiods. The researchers found that summer-like photoperiods increased the activity of neurons and levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Both chemicals are central to serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which increase the levels of both neurotransmitters in the brain. SNRIs are used to treat depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders. The inference, then, is that longer daylight periods lead to happier rats and perhaps, then, humans.
Who Is at Risk?
The study mentioned above also discusses risk factors associated with SAD, such as being between the age of 18 and 30. Women, particularly those in their childbearing years, tend to be at a higher risk than men. Living farther away from the equator is also increases your chances of developing SAD, as higher latitude regions experience seasonal changes in daylight duration. Having a family history of depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD are other factors to consider.
What About Summertime Sadness?
Given the understanding of SAD during the cooler seasons, it may be surprising to learn that it’s possible to experience SAD during the summer season. An individual can feel irritable and agitated or experience episodes of violent behavior. They can also develop insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and poor appetite associated with weight loss.
Although summertime SAD is far less common and understudied, researchers have a few ideas for why it occurs. An article published in the Smithsonian magazine by Brian Handwerk discussed research that suggested summertime SAD may be triggered by excessive sun or heat exposure. Some theorize that allergies and shifts in sleeping habits due to longer daylight periods play a role. At this time, however, more research is needed to better understand its causes.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of major depressive disorder that reoccurs around the same time each year, particularly during the fall and winter seasons. This serious mental health condition can significantly disrupt your daily life and ability to function. At Oceanfront Recovery, our clinicians are trained to identify and treat substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders using evidence-based modalities. We understand what it is like to feel hopeless, lost, and pessimistic, especially when everyone around you seems cheerful and grateful for life. The holiday season and the onset of cold weather can trigger depressive symptoms that can make it hard to see the bright side. You don’t have to struggle alone. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and substance use during this time of year, consider getting help before things get out of hand. We have a variety of treatment programs for men and women. Call Oceanfront Recovery at (877) 279-1777.