As we approach the end of the year, sunlight diminishes and the cold, dreary days of winter set in. Some of us are minimally impacted by this shift and are able to struggle through it by finding more personal comfort in food, TV, and weekends indoors.
However, for others who are susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD), this time of year can often lead to what is defined as a major depressive disorder.
Not Just The Winter Blues
It’s important to understand that SAD is not simply the winter blues, but rather a seasonal depression disorder that can lead to serious problems for those who are suffering from it.
SAD is often referred to as a “winter depression” as the depressive symptoms are much worse during this season. That being said, there are some people who experience SAD during the summer season (summer depression) and less during the winter. These sufferers represent a minority of our population, but the incidence of summer depression is still worthwhile to highlight.
What Problems Can SAD Lead To?
Figuring out if you’re developing SAD is important. If this problem is left untreated, it can lead to prolonged depression, which can cause long term health problems, including:
- Poor work performance
- Social anxiety
- Self isolation
- Relationship challenges
- Weight gain
Review the list of symptoms below to see if you may be experiencing this problem. If you are, it is important to check in with your doctor to further investigate your health during the dark months of winter.
What Are SAD Symptoms?
The main symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are below. These symptoms can play a role in other mental health conditions, so if you suffer from similar depressive symptoms, it is important to speak with a mental health professional.
- Persistent low mood
- Constantly feeling irritable
- A loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities that you would otherwise enjoy
- Low self esteem
- Sudden tearfulness
- Feeling anxious or stressed without reason
- A reduced sex drive
- No interest in social activities
- Chronic fatigue
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
The above SAD symptoms taken individually may not be a direct indicator that you are experiencing this problem. It is when you find that you are dealing with a handful of these symptoms that you may have a bigger challenge on your hands.
Make sure to seek help from your doctor if you think that you might be experiencing SAD and are having a hard time coping.
Why do Some of Us Get Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The Circadian Rhythm
The loss of sunlight during the Fall and Winter months can cause people to develop SAD.
Reduced sunlight may disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to fatigue, heightened emotions, and depression. People with a sensitive nervous system can be more affected.
Low Serotonin Levels
A drop in serotonin, which is a brain chemical that affects our mood, might play a role in SAD.
Sunlight plays a role in our serotonin levels. In our hemisphere, late fall brings less sunlight and there is a recorded corresponding decrease in serotonin activity.
Unfortunately, during the winter months, we often lack sufficient access to enough sunlight for our bodies to properly manage our serotonin levels.
SAD sufferers may have trouble with melatonin overproduction.
The change in the season is another disruptor to the balance in the body’s level of melatonin which supports our sleep and balances our mood. Research has shown some evidence that melatonin secretion may be abnormal in SAD.
The pineal gland produces melatonin which is a hormone that causes sleepiness in response to darkness. SAD sufferers feel tired and lethargic as the winter days witness less sunlight.
If mental disorders run in your family, then you are more likely to be susceptible to SAD.
It is very important to glean information from family members with respect to your family’s mental health history. Mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, are more prevalent in certain persons who are predisposed to suffering from them in light of their family history.
Where You Live
SAD has been seen more in populations that live further away from the equator.
This occurrence may be directly related to the loss of sunlight during the winter months. The severe change of seasonal sunlight also increases the symptoms of SAD.
What Can You Do About Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The first action that you should take is to reach out to a mental health professional. Having a diagnosis of SAD is the first step towards treatment.
We have found that the most successful ways to address SAD include treatments such as bright light therapy, psychotherapy and medication in some cases.
A change of lifestyle can also boost mental health during times of increased vulnerability to depression. The following four remedies are among our most highly recommended methods in dealing with SAD.
Prioritize the Sunlight
Choose being outdoors.
Go out for a walk around the block during your lunch break and soak in some natural light.
Meet friends at the park or situate yourself by a window when working, if at all possible.
The more sunlight you can get, the better. Some people paint their interiors with light colours or use daylight simulation lights to achieve this balance.
Exercise may be as effective as medication.
Having a regular exercise regime, especially outside, can be a powerful tool in fighting SAD. Exercise boosts endorphins, serotonin, and other feel-good brain chemicals. Find something that you enjoy doing to make sure that you stay committed. Aim for 30-60 minutes of movement every day.
Work With a Therapist
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be highly effective for sufferers of SAD.
A therapist can help teach you how to manage negative thinking as well as offer support though challenging moments. They can also help to teach you how to deal with stress in healthy ways.
Start working with a therapist before the middle of winter so that you can work together on a plan before you are impacted by SAD.
Consider Light Therapy
A strong remedy to SAD is light therapy, also known as phototherapy.
Light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight during winter by mimicking natural daylight. Daily exposure to light therapy can help suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin and help you feel more awake and alert, less fatigued and more energetic.
Light therapy has been shown to be very successful, but the length of time and exposure depends on the person and this aspect of its use should be prescribed by a doctor.
There are two options for effective light therapy: a light box, and dawn simulator.
A light therapy box delivers 10x the amount of light in comparison to a domestic light source. In most cases, you sit 1 foot away for 15-30 minutes in the morning.
The light box emits controlled white light, without the harmful UV rays. For this therapy to work, it needs to be used every day. You should start to feel relief 2 weeks after the start of the treatment.
A dawn simulator is a device that gradually increases the amount of light in your bedroom in the morning in order to simulate the rising sun. In effect, this device mimics a natural alarm system inducing the person to wake up. The light increases over a 30–45-minute span just as it would naturally. This can help to reset your circadian rhythm.
Remember, Don’t Give Up
The path to finding what works for you can take some time and it is important to seek help from your doctor if you are finding it hard to cope.
You may may uncertain as to whether or not you are experiencing SAD. That’s okay. If you suspect that you may be suffering from SAD, we recommend you seek the guidance of a mental health professional who will help diagnose your problem and/or effectively treat you for SAD if need be.
Be kind to yourself and know that you may have some difficult days and that is completely normal.