5 common Seasonal Affective Disorder myths debunked

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

As cooler conditions and shorter days drift in toward the end of the year, many people anticipate the shift to a fresh, new season.

However, in others, a change in season triggers signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which is thought to stem from lack of sunlight.

The mood disorder typically strikes each year around the same time. SAD occurs for the majority of people in the fall and winter months.

There are a number of misconceptions about the common yet often misunderstood illness, which impacts about 10 million Americans, or one in every 30 people in the United States.

Sad girl - Pixabay image

Experts agree that recognizing what SAD is, what it isn’t and how it affects people’s lives is crucial.

“As with any medical condition, it’s critically important to understand all the underlying causes to more thoroughly understand how to improve a person’s condition,” said board-certified Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine Christopher Calapai.

“Misconceptions can occur when we try to limit our understanding of the variability in symptoms from one person to another,” Calapai said. “If we tend to categorize and minimize the symptoms, we’re not able to learn as much as possible about [the illness].”

Here are five common myths regarding SAD, including who it affects, when it occurs and how it is treated.

1. SAD is the same as the “winter blues.”

It’s not uncommon for people to feel a decline in energy levels with the arrival of shorter days and chilly weather.

Although the terms SAD and “winter blues” are often used interchangeably, the "winter blues" can usually be treated with regular sleep and physical activity, according to Yellowbrick, a national psychiatric healthcare center.

Most people who simply feel a little down during the colder months are affected for only a short time and are able to bounce back relatively easily, when compared to those who suffer from SAD each year.

“SAD is a form of clinical depression,” said Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic.

“’Winter blues’ imply a more casual term, but SAD is a serious clinical diagnosis,” said Krawiec, who is also executive director of the Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

People suffering from SAD often require psychiatric treatment, medication and light therapy.

2. SAD only occurs during fall and winter.

Although SAD more commonly occurs toward the end of the year, it’s possible for people to suffer through the illness during the warmer months.

Reverse SAD, which occurs during spring and summer, impacts less than one percent of the population, which comprises about 1/10th of all SAD cases, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Winter sufferers often feel sluggish, oversleep more than usual, overeat and gain weight,” Krawiec said. “Conversely, summertime depression often brings insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss and feelings of agitation or anxiety.”

3. SAD only occurs in women.

Studies have shown that between 60 and 90 percent of SAD sufferers are female.

However, the disorder doesn’t discriminate by gender, age or background.

“In many cases, women can experience SAD more often, in part because of significant decline in estrogen, progesterone, thyroid hormones and adrenal hormones in their late 30s to 60s,” Calapai said.

“With that said, men can also suffer from SAD,” he added.

Younger people are also susceptible to the disorder, although it can develop at any age.

4. People suffering from SAD are depressed throughout the year.

As the seasons change, SAD sufferers typically return to normal after the symptoms have run their course.

“Some people have depression year-round that gets worse in the winter; others have SAD alone, struggling with low moods only in the cooler, darker months,” Calapai said.

In order to be diagnosed with SAD, a person only experiences their depressive symptoms seasonally, according to Yellowbrick.

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In addition, the symptoms must happen for two consecutive years during the same period of time in order to qualify as SAD.

Krawiec added that depression comes in a variety of forms, and it’s possible for a person to be diagnosed with more than one form.

“For example, you may experience a lower-than-typical mood year-round, called persistent depressive disorder, and may also have seasonal episodes,” she said.

5. SAD isn’t a serious condition and doesn’t require medical treatment.

“Depending on the severity and [a person’s] mental health history, SAD can be very crippling for one’s mental health,” Calapai said.

The disorder can severely hinder a person’s ability to function as they normally would. A person may experience symptoms like crying often, weight gain, withdrawal from loved ones and difficulty completing simple tasks.

“[If you think you may have SAD], It’s important to speak to your doctor about treatment; all forms of depression limit people's ability to live their lives to the fullest,” Calapai said.

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