Seasonal Affective Disorder: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

In people who have developed seasonal affective disorder, it is common for the change of seasons or seasons to lead to the onset of a mood disorder. This psychological disorder usually begins in the fall or winter and ends in the spring or summer. Because it is primarily associated with depression, the symptoms are typical for this disorder.

If you want to know the psychological effects of seasonal affective disorderhere is a summary of the characteristics of this disorder.

What do we mean by seasonal affective disorder?

Currently, in the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual, The seasonal pattern is a specifier of mood disorders; in particular, it can be linked to any episode of mental deficiency, i.e. to a depressive, manic or hypomanic episode.

So, as the name suggests, seasonal affective disorder is characterized by a pattern of emotional turmoil. giving the onset and remission of episodes at a certain time of the year. It would also meet the criteria if instead of ending the episode there was a pole shift, for example presenting a depressive episode will show a manic.

The most common pattern, linked to depressive episodes, is that which begins in autumn or winter and refers to spring, this type of depression will be called winter. On the other hand, when it comes to manic or hypomanic episodes, it is more common for them to start in the summer and show the opposite pattern.

Although the pattern of onset shown above is usual, it does not have to be so and can be shown upside down where the depressive episode begins in the summer. In any case, the important factor for being able to use this specifier is that in the past two years, at least 2 episodes have appeared with a seasonal pattern and none without this pattern. Similarly, if we value the different episodes that the subject has shown throughout his life, they must be mainly seasonal to apply this specifier.


As for the cause of seasonal disorder, it is believed that it is not just one, that is, it is a multicausal phenomenon, affecting both more biological and more psychological factorsalthough it is not yet known exactly what they are, what specific variables cause this disorder.

In different studies, comparing the levels obtained in subjects of the clinical population and those of the general population, it has been observed that there are differences between neurotransmitters and hormones, of particular importance. serotonin and melatonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to affective disorders, especially in depressive episodes, where this neurotransmitter is reduced.

A fact that reaffirms this lower level of serotonin is that if we treat depressed patients with drugs that inhibit serotonin reuptake, that means it increases, we see an improvement in their symptoms. Thus, we deduce that serotonin is an important neurotransmitter for mood regulation.

Why is there a decrease in serotonin? Sunlight has been shown to act as a regulator of serotonin, causing it to regain and maintain its normal levels throughout the year, but in the case of subjects suffering from seasonal affective disorder, this regulatory function does not work well resulting in lower than normal levels of this neurotransmitter for Winter. . For this reason, this condition is mainly related to the onset of winter.

With reference to the hormone melatonin, it is linked to the regulation of sleep-wake cycles, increasing their levels during the night, when it is dark, to increase the feeling of drowsiness in the subject. In this way, Overproduction of melatonin is seen in patients with seasonal affective disorderwhich makes the individual more tired, more reluctant to do anything and more drowsy.

Melatonin is known to be produced from serotonin, and it is necessary for the balance between the two to be balanced for the sleep and wake cycle to be regulated. As in the case of subjects with seasonal alterations an imbalance occurs, it will show problems in maintaining rhythms regulated and adapted to the different times of the year, to the different seasons, exhibiting sleep problems and altered mood and behavior.

Another factor linked to the decrease in serotonin is the lower level of vitamin D, this type of vitamin has been observed to influence the activity and function of serotonin. Vitamin D can be obtained both through food and to increase its production when we take or the sun gives us, also during the autumn and winter season, when there are fewer hours of d he sunshine or the rays arrive with less intensity, they will affect the production of this vitamin and therefore in the function of serotonin.

More psychological variables have also been studied which may also act as the cause of this disorder. It has been observed that the personality of each subject affects the presence of seasonal affective disorder. Specifically, the two most closely related traits have been shown to be extraversion (affected subjects show lower levels of this variable) and neuroticism (on the contrary, they will present a higher score in this feature). After treatment, when levels were checked, higher levels of extraversion and lower levels of neuroticism were obtained compared to scores reported before treatment.

It was also taken into account how negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings related to winter affect this disorderwhich are typical to find in patients suffering from seasonal mood disorders, although the results are not conclusive because in the absence of an experimental study, the researcher cannot change the variable beliefs and thoughts, independent variable , as he wishes, the relationship cannot be said to be causal and the negative beliefs produce the disorder, as it could also be the reverse and the thoughts will result.

Main Symptoms and Psychological Effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder

As already mentioned, being a specifier of mood disorder and especially of depressive disorder, the typical symptoms of this condition will be those of the depressive episode:

  • Anhedonia, or decreased ability to feel pleasure.
  • Significant weight gain or decrease.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia.
  • Psychomotor restlessness or retardation.
  • Loss of energy.
  • Feeling guilty or useless.
  • Decreased ability to concentrate.
  • Repetitive thoughts of death or suicide.

To meet the criteria, you must also determine if you have had 5 or more of the listed symptoms for at least 2 weeks. Whether the disorder is related to a winter or summer onset, the type of symptoms displayed will also vary..

When this emotional disturbance is related to a winter pattern, an increase in drowsiness, ie hypersomnia, is more characteristic. There is also a tendency to social isolation, the subject ceases to have so many relationships with others and spends more free time eating (therefore there is an increase in body mass).

Conversely, if the pattern appears in the summer, there is more difficulty sleeping, insomnia, weight loss and decreased appetite, as well as an increase in restlessness, anxiety and violent behavior.

Treatment of seasonal mood disorders

Because the causes of seasonal affective disorder are diverse, there are also different treatments currently used to improve the symptoms of affective mood disorder, whether related to more biological or psychological measures.

The most commonly used form of therapy is phototherapywhich consists of exposing the subject daily to very bright light, approximately 10,000 lux (photometric unit) for a period of 30 to 45 minutes to be able to be early in the morning, coinciding with sunrise. This intervention will be carried out during the autumn, winter and spring seasons, to counter the lack of sunshine and thus regulate the activity of serotonin.

Phototherapy, despite its safety, may be contraindicated in patients with eye conditions or increased sensitivity to sunlight.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has also been used to improve and process negative thoughts, beliefs and feelings associated with winter. In the same way, we will try to increase the activity of the subject by carrying out activities that he likes and motivates. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective, and although results take a little longer to be seen than with long-term phototherapy, improvements may be more lasting.

As we have seen, this seasonal specifier is usually associated with episodes of depression, which is why the type of psychotropic medication commonly used is the serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Another antidepressant, bupropion, has also been shown to inhibit the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine.

Finally, as it is typical that in patients suffering from seasonal emotional disorders, a decrease in vitamin D levels has been observed, attempts have been made to increase this amount through nutritional supplements, although the results are not clear, detecting in some cases improvements similar to therapy. with light and in others no effect is observed.

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