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Jan. 15, 2016 // WorkLife Wisdom: What is SAD and How is it Different from Depression?

The cold midwinter can be a tough time. Hibernating until spring can seem tempting. While many people experience mild cases of the “winter blues,” about five percent of people suffer the more severe depressive episodes of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD (or seasonal disorder or depression) usually causes serious mood problems during the less-sunlit months. It differs from classic depression only in its seasonal cycle; for most people, the symptoms are nonexistent during the spring and summer.

The specific cause of seasonal depression isn’t known. However, several factors are likely contributors—all in some way related to the reduced amount of sunlight in the winter:

  • Disruption of the body’s biological clock, or circadian rhythm.
  • Reduced levels of serotonin, a mood regulating brain chemical (neurotransmitter).
  • Increased bodily production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that can cause depressive symptoms.

Women tend to be diagnosed with SAD more often than men. People who have a family history of depression are more prone to having SAD themselves.

To establish an accurate diagnosis for you, a healthcare provider may conduct physical and psychological exams, along with lab tests, to rule out other conditions that are similar to SAD.

Self-Care Tips

  • Get as much natural sunlight as possible, particularly in the morning. Keep the blinds open and take outdoor walks—even on cloudy days.
  • Get more vitamin D, which exists at lower levels in the body during the winter.
  • Stay connected with friends and family—even if it takes more effort during this time of year.

Log on and learn! Look for Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Magellan member website under the “Library/In the Spotlight” section.

Signs and symptoms of SAD

Seasonal depression can be diagnosed if you’ve experienced at least two consecutive fall/winter periods with the following symptoms—which are absent during the spring and summer:

  • Feelings of depression such as misery, guilt, loss of self-esteem, hopelessness, unhappiness, despair and/or apathy.
  • Increased appetite with weight gain, including frequent cravings for starchy and sweet foods (with other forms of depression, weight loss is more common).
  • Increased sleep and daytime sleepiness (with other forms of depression, too little sleep is more common).
  • Less energy and ability to concentrate.
  • Loss of interest in work or other activities.
  • Hypersensitivity to rejection.
  • Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement.
  • Social withdrawal, including irritability and the desire to avoid social contact.
  • Sexual problems including loss of libido and decreased interest in physical contact.

If you experience many of these symptoms, consult with your doctor or contact your Employee Assistance Program to get confidential assistance from a licensed mental health provider.

Treatment Options

  • Light therapy:
    A provider may recommend light therapy (also known as phototherapy) for you. Phototherapy boxes use lamps that emit very bright fluorescent light that mimics natural light. This appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. A common practice for home use is to sit a few feet away from the light box for at least 30 minutes each day.
  • Medication:
    If your symptoms are severe, or phototherapy has not helped, you may also benefit from treatment with antidepressant medications. Antidepressants such as Zoloft, Prozac (fluoxetine), and Paxil (paroxetine) are often prescribed for treatment of seasonal depression.
  • Behavioral therapy:
    Psychotherapy, or talk therapy with a mental health professional, can help you learn to cope better with seasonal depression. A common goal of treatment is to replace the negative thoughts and behaviors that SAD may be causing.

Call your WorkLife Solutions Program at 800-234-1327, TTY Users 1-800-456-4006. This program will provide counselors that you can speak to either in-person or telephonic. The counseling sessions are free. The program’s website contains a wealth of information about depression as well: www.magellanhealth.com/member. Log into the FAA website information using the toll-free number as the program code: 800-234-1327.