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Holiday stress is a common phenomenon, even among teens. But there’s a stark difference between feeling melancholy over the winter break and developing a cycle of depression around the time snow starts falling. This feeling may be more than just being a little down and could be the result of seasonal affective disorder in teens.

While we don’t fully understand how and why some people are susceptible to mood disorder symptoms during the winter months (and, in some cases, over the summer holidays), we do know that seasonal affective disorder in teens is a very real and underdiagnosed mental health problem.

Here is what you should know.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a mood disorder characterized by symptoms tied to a change in season, usually either the peak of summer or the peak of winter.

Most people recognize SAD as the “winter blues,” but it is a little more serious than that – while holiday stress is common, only an estimated 10 million Americans are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder each year, and there are multiple strict prerequisites for a professional diagnosis.

In other words, even if you tend to feel a little more stressed over the holidays, it might not necessarily be SAD – especially if there are other conflating factors or comorbid conditions that might explain your symptoms.

Treatments for SAD differ from case to case but are unique when compared to other mood disorders. For example, teens who develop SAD may be prescribed light therapy, a special type of therapy involving simulated sunlight. While seasonal affective disorder is its own condition, it shares many similarities with other mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder, cyclothymia, and bipolar disorder.

Furthermore, teens with a history of comorbid conditions are much more likely to struggle with seasonal affective disorder, especially conditions like:

Because seasonal affective disorder usually happens at the peak of winter, many researchers believe that sunlight – or the lack thereof – plays a primary role in the development of this mental health condition. However, that doesn’t mean your teen’s symptoms will improve with light therapy alone.

What Does Seasonal Affective Disorder in Teens Look Like?

The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder in teens will usually be like those of major depressive disorder. Major depressive disorder is one of the most common mental health problems in the world and the most well-known mood disorder. Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Unexplained aches and pains (especially stomach pain) and occasional nausea
  • Lack of joy (anhedonia)
  • Loss of interest in old hobbies
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Low mood/sadness as the new “baseline” for normal emotions
  • Lowered pain threshold, more likely to experience chronic pains
  • Emotional outbursts and increased irritability/agitation
  • Rapid weight gain or rapid weight loss
  • Loss of focus and lowered concentration
  • Signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • Frequently discussing/fantasizing about death or disappearing
  • And more

A diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder in teens requires a thorough psychological assessment. Any teen with depressive symptoms over the course of a seasonal shift may be a candidate for seasonal affective disorder, but to be more specific, a diagnosis is usually only met when:

  • A teen meets most of the criteria for major depressive disorder.
  • A teen’s depressive symptoms occur almost exclusively during specific seasons, such as only feeling depressed or showing signs of major depression in the summer or the winter.
  • A teen’s seasonal shift in mood has been occurring for at least two years in a row. Symptoms of SAD can occur sporadically, meaning they become worse in some years or don’t flare up at all in some years. Therefore, the validity of this specific point might depend on a teen’s mental health history and individual circumstances.
  • A teen’s depressive episodes must be more severe or frequent during the shift in seasons in order to be distinguished as seasonal affective disorder. This is important if a teen has already experienced other mood disorders or has had a history of mental health problems.

Therapy and Other Treatment Options

Seasonal affective disorder is thought to be at least somewhat related to the body’s ability to regulate mood through the release of certain neurotransmitters or brain chemicals like serotonin. The release of serotonin may be linked to the body’s circadian rhythm and may be dependent on a healthy supply of sunlight.

Long-term sunlight deprivation, especially in teens with rigid school schedules (where they might wake up and be in school before the sun has risen and be back on their way home after sunset), can affect a teen’s hormone and neurotransmitter production and may affect their mood and mentality as a result.

Outside of any potential neurochemical origins, seasonal affective disorder in teens might also be linked to an increase in holiday-related stressors, both over the winter and summer months. The weather alone can be a factor – it being consistently too warm or too cold – as are elements such as family stress related to the holidays, financial stressors, or even an increase in rates of domestic violence towards the end of the year.

Addressing seasonal affective disorder in teens means figuring out what any individual teen’s circumstances are. There are no quick fixes or effective cookie-cutter cures – a treatment plan must take a teen’s living situation, concurrent physical and mental health issues, as well as family history into consideration. Here are a few different modalities and common treatments.

  • Light Therapy – For teens with winter-based seasonal affective disorder, a doctor may prescribe a special light box for frequent light therapy. 
  • Medication – Depending on the severity of the condition and comorbid conditions, a teen with seasonal affective disorder may be prescribed antidepressants or other psychiatric medication.
  • Talk Therapy – Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the golden standard for depressive psychotherapy and can also help reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
  • Sleep Hygiene – Sleep habits can break down over the peak winter or summer months, which can affect mood and mental health. Better sleep hygiene can improve both mental and emotional functioning.

Can Seasonal Affective Disorder Be Prevented?

If a teen’s symptoms tend to ramp up towards the winter months (or the summer months), then a professional mental health treatment plan can be developed to plan ahead accordingly and start addressing the issue before it flares back up.

In some cases, this can mean starting treatment even before the depression usually starts to come back. This can help some teens avoid an episode of seasonal affective disorder altogether.

For more information about depression or seasonal affective disorder, contact Visions Treatment Centers.

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