AFMC Command News

Understanding, coping with seasonal affective disorder

  • Published
  • By Misha King

For many people, the change in weather and season brings great joy and happiness. But for others, it makes them sad. Seasonal affective disorder, known as SAD, affects an estimated 10 million people and possibly includes someone you know.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s SAD resource page, many people go through short periods of time where they feel sad or not like their usual selves during a SAD episode. They may start to feel down when the days get shorter in the fall and winter, and begin to feel better in the spring when the daylight hours are longer. In some cases, these mood changes can affect how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities.

There are different types of SAD. For winter-pattern SAD, or winter depression, the symptoms start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer. This type applies to most SAD cases. Summer-pattern SAD is a less common type where some people may experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months.

According to NIMH, SAD is not considered a separate disorder; it is a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal patterns. The signs and symptoms include those associated with major depression as well as specific symptoms that differ for winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD.

Symptoms of major depression may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Having problems with sleep
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having low energy
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Winter-pattern SAD specific symptoms may include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Summer-pattern SAD specific symptoms may include:

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Episodes of violent behavior

Warning signs of SAD include:

  • Talking about feelings of hopelessness or desire to hurt self
  • Increased alcohol/drug use or abuse
  • Withdrawal from activity/isolation
  • Extreme mood swings (good or bad)
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Depression/constant anxiety
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones
  • Giving away possessions
  • Self-harm or injury

Tips that can help prevent SAD:

  • Create a comfortable work environment that reduces stress (both physical and mental).
  • Remain active and prioritize physical movement.
  • Get organized through planning work and maintaining a tidy work place to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
  • Maintain connections with friends and colleagues by deliberately reaching out and creating a habit of connection.
  • Ask others how they are feeling or if they are contemplating suicide or hurting themselves.
  • Encourage colleagues to seek professional help or use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) 
  • Provide a support system to let others know they are not alone.
  • Stay connected and check in regularly.
  • Provide a listening ear.