How to tell the difference between seasonal affective disorder and depression

Posted on 03/06/20 10:58:am telling the difference between depression and SAD


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The winter blues, winter funk, winter depression, seasonal affective disorder—it’s known by many names and whatever you call it, it can be debilitating. Most commonly known to the public as SAD, this is one of the most common subsets of depression. Natalie Scanlon, PhD, clinical supervisor of Rogers’ Focus Depression Recovery adult residential care, offers some insight on the differences between SAD and depression.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Under the current diagnostic guidelines for mental health, SAD is no longer listed as a standalone mood disorder. Instead it’s defined as a subset of depressive disorders with a seasonal pattern where someone experiences greater and lesser symptoms of a depressive disorder.

In general, Dr. Scanlon says that major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern is more common in higher latitudes with greater seasonal changes. Places like Canada and the northern states have shorter days during winter months. In addition, winter depressive episodes are more common in younger people.

What is the difference between SAD and depression?

When distinguishing between a diagnosis of depression and depression with a seasonal pattern, it all comes down to timing. Dr. Scanlon says that the symptoms for both are likely very similar or even identical.

“A person suffering from major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern would experience common symptoms such as depressed mood, weight gain (appetite increase and a specific craving for carbohydrates are common in winter months), excessive sleep or drowsiness, a loss of interest in things previously enjoyed. The person may experience hopelessness and even suicidality in fall and winter months, as opposed to the rest of the year.”

In order for someone to be diagnosed with depression with seasonal pattern, they would have to experience:

  • at least two years of symptoms that become worse during a specific time of the year
  • the seasonal depressive episodes must significantly outweigh the nonseasonal episodes

Is SAD treated differently from regular depression?

Dr. Scanlon says that treatment for MDD and MDD with seasonal pattern usually require the same approach. Therapy and the use of anti-depressant medications are commonly prescribed for someone with depression, whether seasonal or not.

“We recommend using evidence-based treatments with research to back their effectiveness,” Dr. Scanlon adds. “At Rogers, we utilize cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral activation, and mindfulness.”

Likewise, someone with MDD with seasonal pattern may or may not require a more intensive approach to treatment, but Dr. Scanlon points out that people shouldn’t just to try wait out the depressive episode if it’s seasonal.

“The mentality that someone can just endure the depressive episode means that they will likely have a period of several weeks or months of being quite functionally impaired and struggling with difficult emotions alone,” she explains. “The sooner they’re able to get professional help and learn helpful skills, the sooner they can return to a more fulfilling and enjoyable life.”

Think you might have depression? Take our depression quiz or call 800-767-4411 for a free, confidential screening. You can also request a screening online.”

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