Seasonal affective disorder or depression: 6 ways to tell the difference

Seasonal affective disorder may be similar to depression, but the two are not the same.
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Seasonal affective disorder is different from general depression. Image courtesy: Freepik
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 30 Jan 2024, 09:05 am IST

When it gets colder and the days become shorter, we see less sunlight and prefer to stay indoors. The change of seasons and temperatures can also affect our mood and energy. Sleeping issues and persistent feeling of unhappiness are some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as well as depression. Even though SAD is a recurrent major depressive disorder, which has a seasonal pattern, it is not the same as clinical depression. Read on to know the difference between seasonal affective disorder and depression.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs at a specific time of year, usually during the fall and winter months when there is less natural sunlight, says psychiatrist Dr Rahul Rai Kakkar.

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, but it is believed to be linked to a lack of sunlight exposure. Reduced sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and affect the production of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin, contributing to symptoms of SAD. According to a 2015 study published in the Depression Research and Treatment journal, women and those who live far from the equator are some of the people who are most at risk of experiencing SAD.

Know the difference between seasonal affective disorder and clinical depression. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Common symptoms of SAD include –

  • Low energy
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A craving for carbohydrates

What is depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder characterised by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities, the expert tells Health Shots. It can affect various aspects of a person’s life, including their emotions, thoughts, and physical well-being. The causes of depression are complex and can involve a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Here are.some of them –

  • Imbalances in neurotransmitters
  • A family history of depression
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Significant life stressors

Depression symptoms include –

  • Persistent sadness
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in sleep and appetite
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

What are the differences between seasonal affective disorder and depression?

There are some differences between depression and seasonal affective disorder.

1. Seasonal pattern

SAD is characterised by a seasonal pattern, usually occurring in fall and winter, whereas depression can occur at any time of the year, points out Dr Kakkar.

2. Light exposure

SAD is associated with reduced sunlight exposure. Depression is not necessarily linked to specific light conditions.

3. Sleep and appetite changes

SAD often involves oversleeping and increased appetite, especially for carbohydrates. Depression may manifest as either oversleeping or insomnia and changes in appetite.

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Depression symptoms can persist throughout the year. Image courtesy: Freepik

4. Onset and duration

SAD symptoms have a predictable onset and remission, aligning with seasons, whereas depression symptoms can develop more gradually and persist throughout the year.

5. Environmental triggers

While both conditions can be influenced by environmental factors, SAD is more closely tied to changes in seasons and light availability.

6. Prevalence

SAD is more prevalent in regions with distinct seasonal changes, says the expert. Depression, on the other hand, is a global phenomenon.

What are the treatment options?

There are effective treatment options for seasonal affective disorder and depression.

1. Seasonal affective disorder

Light therapy, where individuals are exposed to a bright light that mimics natural sunlight, is a common treatment. Psychotherapy and medications such as antidepressants can also be effective, says the expert.

2. Depression

Treatment options include psychotherapy (counseling or talk therapy), medications (antidepressants), and lifestyle changes. If the case is severe, therapy and medication are both recommended by doctors.

While both depression and seasonal affective disorder share some common symptoms, the timing, environmental triggers, and specific manifestations distinguish them.

Natalia Ningthoujam

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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