Seasonal depression is becoming more prevalent as winter approaches. Luckily, there are many options when it comes to treating its symptoms. Light therapy, psychotherapy, and antidepressant treatment methods are commonly used. Understanding which treatment you respond best to can help you prepare for when your symptoms arise each affected season.
Treating SAD Without Insurance
When treating seasonal depression, many options are worth exploring. SAD symptoms will generally improve as the seasons change. However, treatment can help expedite symptom improvement. Treatment will fall into three main categories used alone or in combination.
- Light therapy
- Antidepressant medications
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, is a medical treatment that uses natural or artificial light to treat numerous conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, and SAD. This treatment involves you sitting in front of a light box within the first hour of waking up each day. Light therapy generally starts working in a few days to weeks and has very few side effects. Although research on light therapy is limited, it appears to be effective for most people in relieving symptoms related to SAD.
SAD Light therapy is one of the more inexpensive phototherapy treatments, with annual costs for an at-home phototherapy unit averaging $4,590. Before purchasing a light box, you should consult with your healthcare professional to ensure that you are buying the light box most appropriate and effective for you; some light boxes are created for other conditions besides SAD. You can buy a light box without a prescription, and they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) that is extremely common. It involves CBT based on the principle that how we think, feel, and behave are very closely connected. It is highly structured and limited to several sessions with your mental health professional. Psychotherapy works for those experiencing SAD in many ways. CBT can help you:
- learn healthy ways to cope with SAD
- identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors
- manage stress
- build in healthy behaviors
Therapy without insurance can cost between $100 - $200 per session. Luckily, there are also many affordable therapy options, including mental health care apps and telehealth doctors. With telebehavioral health for copays as low as $15, Mira members also get access to essential healthcare such as urgent care, lab testing, and more.
If symptoms are severe, antidepressant medication may be extremely helpful in treating your SAD. There are many commonly prescribed antidepressants. The most commonly prescribed medications for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which increase serotonin levels, stabilizing your mood. Antidepressant medication can only be prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist, meaning you will need to meet with one beforehand.
You can see a psychiatrist in-person or virtually, ranging in cost from $100 to $500 based on many factors. Once a psychiatrist completes a psychiatric evaluation, they can make treatment recommendations. Your psychiatrist may recommend starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms typically begin each year and continuing to take the antidepressant past the time your symptoms normally go away.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Depression, also referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that fluctuates with the seasons. It is commonly known as “winter depression” because symptoms become more severe during the winter months. Symptoms usually start in the winter and improve when spring comes around.
SAD is not understood in its entirety. There are many theories as to why SAD occurs in some people, but no definitive answer. The major idea behind theories of SAD is its linkage to sunlight exposure and its effect on the regulation of the hormones melatonin and serotonin.
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Melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. Your brain produces it as a response to being in the dark. This hormone helps with the timing of your circadian rhythm (biological clock), which plays a crucial role in your sleep. For people with SAD, the body may produce melatonin at higher than normal levels, giving rise to SAD symptoms.
Serotonin is a hormone that affects many things, including your mood, appetite, and sleep. A lack of sunlight during the winter months may lead to lower serotonin levels, disrupting your circadian rhythm and leading to symptoms of SAD.
Symptoms of SAD
There are many symptoms, and the following list is by no means exhaustive. People may experience different symptoms at different severity levels, finding these symptoms to interfere with everyday life and activities. Some general symptoms of SAD include:
- Persistent low mood
- Loss of pleasure or interest in your everyday activities
- feelings of despair and worthlessness
- Lacking energy
- Sleeping for longer than normal
- Craving carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased sex drive
SAD itself is not a disorder but rather a type of depression. Therefore, many common characteristics and symptoms of depression are apparent in SAD. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) differentiates between general depression and major depression symptoms, summer-pattern SAD symptoms, and winter-pattern SAD symptoms below. It is important to note that not everyone with SAD will experience all or exactly these listed symptoms.
Common Symptoms of Major Depression and SAD
|Type of Depression||Symptoms|
If your symptoms become too much to handle and you believe you have SAD, consider seeing a doctor. They may diagnose you with SAD and refer you to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further assistance. To be diagnosed with SAD, you must meet the following criteria:
- “Have symptoms of major depression or the more specific symptoms listed above
- Your depressive episodes must occur during specific seasons (i.e., only during the winter months or the summer months) for at least 2 consecutive years
- Your episodes must be much more frequent than other depressive episodes that the person may have had at other times of the year during their lifetime (NIMH)”.
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SAD Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Consider this additional information when it comes to treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Does SAD Require a Diagnosis?
Yes, SAD requires a diagnosis from a mental health care professional. Diagnosis is based on specific criteria (listed above). However, not everyone with SAD will experience symptoms every year. This is why it is important to seek the help of a trained medical professional if you feel you have symptoms of SAD. This is important as you will also make sure there is no other medical condition causing your symptoms.
Are Some People More Likely to Develop SAD?
Although millions of adults suffer from SAD, it has been shown to affect women and those who live further north the most. This is because there are much shorter daylight hours in the winter. Additionally, the risk factors for SAD include family history, history of or current major depression or bipolar disorder, living far from the equator, and low levels of vitamin D.
Can I Treat SAD At Home Using CBT?
Self-directed CBT may also be a viable option for you, and studies have shown that self-treatment can be very effective in decreasing the effects of depression. However, self-directed CBT is only recommended when facing mild to moderate symptoms. You can find resources online to help with self-directed CBT, including youtube videos and worksheets.
Seasonal affective disorder is estimated to impact 10 million Americans, with some more likely to experience symptoms than others. Phototherapy, CBT, and antidepressant medication are commonly used treatment techniques and can help you prepare as the months you usually are affected by SAD approach. Since your symptoms follow a seasonal pattern, you can better prepare to face SAD.
With a Mira membership, you can chat with a Mira representative to access any SAD treatment resources you need, such as finding an affordable therapist. For an average of $45 per month, you also get exclusive discounts on prescription medicines, low-cost lab testing, and flat-fee doctor’s visits. Sign up today to start saving!
Kendra Bean is from Maui, Hawaiʻi. She is currently enrolled at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, specializing in Epidemiology. She is passionate about improving health literacy and access to care, specifically in rural areas.