Depression Portrait: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Emily’s mood darkened. She lost touch with her closest friends. She mixed up the names of the kids she worked with. And at home, she found herself watching way too much television: not her old favorite smart dramas and Comedy Central programs, but reality shows that confirmed her fear that most of the world is selfish, narcissistic, and stupid.

When a woman at work asked Emily to a Christmas party, she dreaded the idea. She felt so tired that the thought of socializing and celebrating made her feel more alone than ever. But she didn’t refuse—she was afraid of where isolation could lead. On the night of the party, she put on her most festive dress, strappy heels, and dangly earrings, and she picked up a $30 bottle of pinot noir. Her movements felt painfully slow, and going through the motions took all her willpower. She arrived fashionably late.

The second-floor apartment was full of light and people; a Christmas tree twinkled by the window. After forcing a smile and chatting with her hostess for a few minutes, she got a drink and went looking for a private corner. She hesitated in the doorway of a small, dim study, saw a plate of cookies on a table, and decided it was okay to enter. She had settled herself on a window seat, looking out at the cars ribboning down Beacon Street, when a voice startled her:

“I hate winter.”

There was a man scrunched down in a leather chair, making himself invisible from the door. She couldn’t see much but dark hair, the gleam of his eyes, and his cowboy boots.

“It gets darker earlier every day. It feels like the world is dying,” he said.

“I felt like that two months ago,” she said, surprising herself by opening up so readily to an absolute stranger.

“Really? But October is full of all those colors.” His voice was sardonic, yet melodious, and she felt a tingle of interest.

“Well… it’s only pretty if you’re in the mood,” Emily said.

“You weren’t?” Emily shook her head in response.

“Oh, good, another depressed person.” The man chuckled, “I guess every party needs a little gloom.”

“It’s not funny.” She looked out the window and watched her breath create condensation on the glass. It evaporated almost instantly.

“I didn’t say it was. The name’s Noah.”

“I’m Emily. … Have you built the ark yet?” Probably not the first time he’s heard that, but at least she’s engaging with someone, she thought.

“Not so much. My mom said I’d be the only boy with the name.” They laughed.

“So, you’re really depressed?” she asked.

“I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. As soon as the days get shorter, my body wants to move to Australia.”

“Sounds like a great plan.”

“My boss would disagree. My last girlfriend said it was all in my head.”

“As opposed to where? Your foot?” (…Continued below.)

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

Shorter days mean long emotional nights for those with seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—which is also known as seasonal depression—affects
millions of people worldwide. Individuals with this illness present the symptoms of major depression or dysthymia, typically at the start of fall and into the dark winter months, as illustrated above. To be officially diagnosed with SAD, one must present a pattern of depression that comes and goes with specific seasons for at least two consecutive cycles, and it must be severe enough to meet the criteria of major depressive disorder. Additionally, signs and symptoms of SAD include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection, personally and/or professionally
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Overeating and a craving for carbohydrates
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Chronic fatigue, despite ample (or more than ample) sleep

Treatment for SAD

Treatment for seasonal affective disorder can vary, depending on individual needs and preferences. The following, however, are options that may prove effective:

  • Light Therapy: This popular form of treatment involves the use of lightboxes and full-spectrum lamps that emit far more lumens than regular incandescent lamps. People with SAD sit a prescribed distance from the box for 30 to 60 minutes, once or twice per day.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is another effective treatment option for seasonal affective disorder. It helps individuals identify and transform negative thought and behavior patterns, learn healthy techniques for coping with their disorder, and better manage stress.
  • Medication: Individuals with seasonal affective disorder may also benefit from taking certain medications, such as an antidepressant. Several, such as Wellbutrin XL, are particularly effective in preventing depressive episodes in individuals with SAD. Furthermore, because it can take some time to observe the benefits of this medication, your doctor may recommend you begin treatment before your symptoms of SAD even begin.

Depression Portrait: Seasonal Affective Disorder Continued…

Emily talked to Noah all evening. For the few hours they were together, she didn’t feel depressed, even though depression was mostly what they talked about. He’d had SAD since his mid-teens and was much more informed than she was about the ins and outs of mood disorders. His jokes made her feel like it wasn’t so bad—or so crazy—to see the world the way she did. By the end of the evening, she even began to think her depression was gone. She got in bed that night, her head spinning from wine and a renewed sense of hope.

The next morning, Emily awoke with the same ache in her chest. She was glad to have met Noah and was looking forward to seeing him again, but her depression wasn’t gone. It was almost worse, knowing that having something good happen in her life didn’t provide sustained happiness. The depression felt more real than ever.

It became unmistakably clear: Emily’s depression—whether it be SAD or one of several other major types—was getting in the way of her living her life. If speaking to someone with a similar struggle who knew a little more about it was helpful, perhaps speaking with an expert will better help Emily understand what she’s going through and what she can do to fight back.

Get Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you believe that you or someone you know is struggling with SAD, know this: You can do something about it right now. Recovery starts as soon as you’d like it to. SAD is just one of the many highly treatable mood disorders that our caring, experienced clinicians have worked with people to overcome. Identifying that you are depressed and possibly have SAD isn’t shameful—instead, it shows your inner strength and desire to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. Remember: It’s never too late to feel better and live better! Help is available right now. Click here to meet with a Thriveworks counselor or coach this week, if not within 24 hours.