Ask the Expert: Could you have seasonal affective disorder?

Winter in Indiana can be long. For many Indiana University faculty and staff, it's dark on the way to work and it's dark on the way home. Temperatures drop, and inclement weather discourages you from leaving the house.

All of this and more can be a drag, but is there a chance it's more than the winter blues? Read these tips from the director of IU Bloomington's Counseling and Psychological Services, Denise Hayes, to learn more about seasonal affective disorder.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Also known as SAD, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. Depressive episodes linked to the summer can occur but are much less common.

What are the symptoms?

SAD includes all the symptoms of depression: for example, feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day of that season, having problems sleeping, having low energy, feeling hopeless, and having thoughts of death or suicide. The National Association for Mental Illness has a complete list of symptoms for depression.

Depressive episodes not associated with SAD are consistent over extended periods, whereas moods associated with SAD are reoccurring and associated with the seasons.

In addition to feelings and thoughts associated with depression, symptoms of SAD may also include excessive sleep, overeating, weight gain, craving for carbohydrates and social withdrawal.

Are you at risk for SAD?

One percent of those who live in Florida and 9 percent of those who live in New England or Alaska suffer from SAD. These statistics indicate that people who live in cold climates with less sunlight during winter are at higher risk of SAD than those who live in sunny and warm climates.

Females are four times more likely than males to experience symptoms of SAD. In addition, there is an increased likelihood of experiencing SAD if you have family members with depression. Younger adults, including children and teens, are more likely than older adults to experience SAD.

What should you do if you think you have SAD?

  • Talk with your medical or mental health provider to determine whether your thoughts, feelings and moods are related to SAD.
  • If you are diagnosed with SAD, research shows that using light therapy can relieve symptoms. Sit or work near a device called a light therapy box, which gives off a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. The Mayo Clinic offers suggestions for selecting light therapy boxes.
  • Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant treatment, especially if symptoms are severe. Your medical or mental health provider can offer suggestions.
  • Talk therapy or psychotherapy can help you develop coping strategies such as identifying negatives thoughts, managing stress and creating proactive ways to stay active.
  • Exercising, meditation and guided imagery are examples of strategies to manage SAD.
  • Increasing exposure to sunlight helps reduce symptoms of SAD. Check your environment, open blinds, remove outside shrub or trees that block sunlight and take walks during the day.

SAD is real and can inhibit a person's ability to function to their fullest. Recognize signs early and seek help if necessary.

Denise Hayes is director of IU Bloomington's Counseling and Psychological Services.