Five Ways that Seasonal Affective Disorder is Different from Depression

Five Ways that Seasonal Affective Disorder is Different from Depression

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) shares several symptoms with depression, but there are major differences in their cause, risk factors and preferred methods of treatment.

Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder associated with depression. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, and depression can share many symptoms, but the two disorders have different causes, as well as benefit from different forms of treatment. Being able to distinguish seasonal affective disorder from depression allows individuals to utilize the most appropriate treatment to manage either condition as effectively as possible.

How to Tell SAD and Depression Apart

Listed below are five ways that SAD and depression differ from one another.

  1. SAD is dependent on the time of year – In order to be diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, a person must exhibit the symptoms of the disorder for at least two consecutive years. Unlike depression, seasonal affective disorder occurs within a ‘seasonal’ time period. The most common time period for seasonal affective disorder is between the months of September and March, when there is a decrease in exposure to sunlight; however, SAD can also occur during the spring and summer months, and there will still be a distinct seasonal occurrence of symptoms. Depression is not triggered, nor does it subside, because of a change in season or sunlight. Individuals with seasonal affective disorder will notice that their symptoms of depression appear at a certain time of year, and subside at the change in season. Furthermore, individuals with seasonal affective disorder will not experience episodes of depression during the season where they experience a normal mood.
  1. SAD affects circadian rhythm – Seasonal affective disorder is similar to depression in that the exact cause of the disorder is unknown; however, research shows a few factors that come into play in cases of seasonal affective disorder. The main cause of seasonal affective disorder during fall and winter months is the disruption of the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm. The decrease in sun exposure offsets the body’s circadian rhythm, which is responsible for coordinating all of the body’s internal clocks. This disruption affects sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and more, and is a major contributing factor to the development of seasonal affective disorder.
  1. SAD is caused by reduced sunlight – With seasonal affective disorder, the reduced exposure to sunlight also affects brain chemicals that are responsible for sleep patterns and mood. A decrease in sunlight exposure disrupts the body’s production of serotonin and melatonin levels. These brain chemicals have a direct impact on mood, and are a key contributing factor to mood disorder like seasonal affective disorder. While depression is also caused by abnormal chemical balance and changes in brain chemistry, the chemical changes of seasonal affective disorder are brought on by changes in the season.
  1. SAD is affected by location – Another factor that applies to SAD but not depression is the increased risk due to location. The risk for developing seasonal affective disorder significantly increases the further a person travels from the equator. Researchers attribute this to sunlight exposure and shortened and lengthened days during seasonal changes.
  1. SAD can be treated with light therapy – Another major difference between depression and seasonal affective disorder is the option for light therapy treatment. Because the major causes of SAD revolve around lack of sunlight, the most effective form of treatment seems to be light therapy or phototherapy, where an individual is exposed to a special light that mimics natural outdoor light and will boost brain chemicals, like serotonin, that will improve mood. This form of therapy is typically most effective for SAD, and minimizes the need for other forms of treatment like antidepressant medication or psychotherapy.

If you believe you may be suffering from any type of depression or change in mood, talk to a healthcare professional to determine the best course of treatment.

Learn More about Seasonal Affective Disorder, Depression and Your Options for Treatment

If you would like to learn more about seasonal affective disorder, depression or other mental health issues, you can call our toll-free helpline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We can answer any questions you may have, address your concerns, and provide you with all the information you will ever need about depression and related issues. If you are ready to find treatment options for you or a loved one, we can connect you with the programs and services that fit your unique recovery needs. To learn more, call and chat with a recovery professional today; we’re ready to help however we can.