gray winter day to represent SAD

EMDR for SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Deany Laliotis LICSW, Founder of The Center

Think of SAD as An Annually Recurring Trauma to Understand Why EMDR Provides Relief.

Winter is only a month away and with its shorter days and longer nights, we can expect, again this year, a spike in cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is recognized as a major depressive disorder that comes and goes with the seasons. Symptoms typically arise in late fall or early winter and last until the days lengthen again.

What Are the Symptoms of SAD?

People with SAD experience many of the same symptoms as major depression—feelings of sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, low energy, agitation or difficulty concentrating. They can lose interest in previously enjoyable activities or entertain suicidal thoughts.

Some symptoms are specific to winter-pattern SAD. They include chronic oversleeping, overeating—particularly with a craving for carbohydrates, weight gain and social withdrawal or “hibernating.” Symptoms typically last for four or five months until the days become longer in spring or summer.

What Causes SAD?

Scientists do not fully understand the causes of SAD, but the role that levels of serotonin and melatonin play is clear. Sunlight helps maintain normal serotonin levels in the brain, but in people with SAD, this regulation does not function properly. That results in decreased serotonin levels in the winter. Other studies suggest that people with SAD produce too much melatonin and which leads to increased sleepiness. For people with SAD, serotonin-melatonin imbalances disrupt the body’s ability to adjust to reduced sunlight during the short days of winter. That inability to adjust leads to the sleep, mood, and behavior changes we see with SAD.

Common Recommendations for Relief

Every fall, dozens of self-help articles urge people who’ve experienced SAD in the past to prepare. They’re urged to buy a light box for light therapy, stay socially engaged throughout the winter, increase self-care and find a support network. NIMH, recommends light therapy as well as anti-depressive medication and psychotherapy. But few mention EMDR.

Why EMDR Is Effective with SAD

For most people with SAD, it recurs year after year. They know when its symptoms will emerge and what it holds in store. For them, SAD is lived out as an annually recurring trauma. Every winter’s worth of SAD piles on the traumatic memories. And looking ahead to winter can trigger a unique constellation of negative thoughts, anxieties and intense emotional and somatic responses for them.

Those thoughts and reactions provide a useful focus for EMDR therapy. We can access memory networks and work through multiple points of disturbance to help move clients with SAD from a place of emotional activation to a more logical, rational place. So when we recognize the hallmarks of SAD in a client, we know that EMDR can help.

Learn More About SAD

Nothing about SAD is simple. There’s much to learn about the role of genetics, other causes and co-morbidities. There is also a lot of variety in how SAD presents. The most common is winter-pattern SAD, with symptoms starting in the late fall or early winter and fading in spring and summer. Less common is summer-pattern SAD where people experience depression during the spring and summer. SAD affects each client differently with a unique constellation of symptoms. Research is ongoing and you can get the latest information on all aspects of SAD from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) here.