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Insight into the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 12/8/2010

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is disease characterized by seasonal fluctuations in mood and behavior that closely resemble depression. Find out more about the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

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    There’s no doubt that weather plays a role in how a person feels. Who doesn’t feel a little down when they look outside and see a dark, gloomy day? Most people feel more energetic when the sun is high in the sky, and the days are long.

    For people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, these seasonal mood changes are more pronounced – to the point they experience symptoms that affect their mental health during a portion of the year .

    What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?

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    Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

    A person with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, experiences mood changes that fluctuate with the change in season. SAD sufferers usually act and appear mentally healthy during a portion of the year, usually the spring and summer, but when the shorter, light-deprived days of winter arrive, they experience a constellation of symptoms that very closely resembles depression. Less commonly, a person with seasonal affective disorder experiences mental health problems in the spring or summer, but the symptoms are usually different.

    Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are varied, but generally include symptoms most people associate with depression. A sad, depressed mood, difficulty sleeping, self-esteem problems, a lack of interest in activities along with changes in eating habits are typical manifestations of seasonal affective disorder.

    When a person has SAD, their eating habits change too. Some people with this condition eat more, while a smaller percentage have such a significant loss of appetite that they lose weight. More typically, people with SAD frequently crave carbohydrates and may experience significant weight gain during their “down” season.

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    Making the Diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder

    Doctors usually diagnose SAD based on a patient’s symptoms and look for symptoms of depression that fluctuate on a seasonal basis. Seasonal affective disorder is classified from a psychiatric standpoint as a subtype of depression. Thus, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder closely mimic those of depression. These days seasonal affective disorder is often referred to as depression with seasonal onset, which accurately describes its symptoms and features.

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    Less Typical Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

    The overwhelming majority of people with SAD experience mental health issues during the winter when the days are shorter, and they’re deprived of light. A smaller number experience mental health issues in the spring and summer. People with summertime seasonal affective disorder are usually anxious, irritable, have difficulty sleeping, lose weight and may even contemplate suicide. Like the more typical “winter” seasonal affective disorder, the symptoms of summertime SAD are cyclical and change with the season.

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    What is the Bottom Line?

    Because the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are so similar to those of depression, the symptoms must be seasonal to make the diagnosis, and full remissions must occur when the season changes. If a person’s symptoms are non-seasonal or persist from season to season, it makes the diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder unlikely.

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    References

    American Family Physician. 74(9); 1521-4.

    Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.

    Mayo Clinic website. “Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms”