Feeling especially down this time of year? You’re not alone. Millions of Americans experience SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—a form of depression that usually starts in the fall when the days begin to get shorter and there is less sunlight, and lasts until the spring. In fact, the third Monday in January has earned the title of Blue Monday as the most depressing day of the year!
Although the science behind Blue Monday is a bit questionable, this time of year is notoriously bleak, particularly for those living farther north of the equator where there are less daylight hours in the winter. The good news is that there are many things you can do to help manage and alleviate the symptoms that this seasonal depression brings. But first, let’s learn a little more about Seasonal Affective Disorder.
WHAT IS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes referred to as ‘winter blues’, is not a separate disorder but, rather, a type of depression characterized by its recurrent seasonal pattern, with symptoms lasting about 4 to 5 months per year. The most difficult months for people feeling depressed with SAD in the United States tend to be January and February.
The causes of SAD are not fully understood, but has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain exacerbated by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. During this time, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of sync with their usual schedule.
Research suggests that the lack of sunlight reduces our serotonin (the “feel good” hormone) levels while increasing our melatonin (the “sleep” hormone) levels. In people with SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin levels disrupt the normal daily rhythms. As a result, some people can no longer adjust to the seasonal changes in day length, leading to sleep, mood, and behavior changes.
What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?
People with SAD experience mood changes and symptoms similar to depression such as sadness, loss of interest, low energy, hopelessness, agitation, and difficulty concentrating. In addition, common symptoms of seasonal depression, which may range from mild to severe, may also include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Who is at risk?
SAD can affect anyone, but is more common in people with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. People with other mental disorders—or who have relatives diagnosed with them—such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or an eating, anxiety, or panic disorder are at higher risk than those who do not have them.
As mentioned, people who live in areas of the world that have reduced daylight hours in winter are at increased risk as compared to those living in areas with more sunlight.
Can seasonal depression be treated with medication?
Seasonal depression is typically treated with a combination of medication and other non-pharmacological therapies. Treatment for seasonal depression may include: Psychotherapy
Cognitive and behavioral therapy may help a person understand what they are feeling. A therapist can work with a person to identify any stressors or triggers that may be worsening depressive symptoms.
What you can do: Everyday tips for managing SAD
While therapy and medication may be essential for some people with SAD, anyone can employ simple strategies to help self-manage symptoms throughout the season. Try some of these tips to help lessen the effects of seasonal depression:
Let There Be Light
Let as much natural light into your space as possible, preferably as soon as you get up. Open those curtains and blinds.
Another simple way to get light during the winter month is by using light therapy with a SAD lamp—a box that emits a very bright light (and filters out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays)—which is very effective if you use it consistently. Typically, it requires 20 minutes or more per day, preferably first thing in the morning during the winter months. Most people see improvement within one or two weeks of beginning treatment.
Buy Some Plants
Plants have been shown to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially during a long winter. They give people something to nurture and help make us more aware of how natural light enters our homes. No green thumb? No problem! Simply search, “easy care plants,” and lots of options will pop up!
Get some form of daily physical activity, preferably outdoors. Don’t overthink this one! A 20-minute walk counts. Set a reasonable bar and then you can build up later if you’d like. Simply establishing this habit is the most important part.
Do some stretching or strength training indoors—near a window, if possible—if the weather is too severe for outdoor activities.
Maintain a Routine
As you begin to become tired, often it is really easy to slip out of your daily routines. You could find yourself sleeping more and being restless at night. Seasonal depression can also cause you to feel down in general and very overwhelmed. This can be tough to deal with as it is hard to stay productive and get the things done you need to. That is why it is helpful to recognize this and try your best to maintain a consistent schedule, including meals, physical activity, and sleep. (Seems pretty basic, but it’s worth emphasizing.)
In addition to many cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, a vitamin D deficiency is also linked to depression. So if you’re feeling SAD, now is a good time to get your D levels tested.
You can consume Vitamin D through your diet, but you may not receive a high enough dose to be effective. Instead, consider purchasing a vitamin D supplement, or have your doctor prescribe a higher-concentrated version of vitamin D, such as 10,000 IU or 50,000 IU.
Maintaining a healthy diet is critical for both physical and mental health. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in comfort foods during the colder winter months, but those items don’t have to be packed with sugar or unhealthy fats. Be sure to include good fats like avocados, nuts and olive oil. These fats can help you feel fuller longer and may discourage overeating or carbohydrate cravings.
Smile & Laugh
As simple as that may sound, try to intentionally make space for joy! Laughter is a well-documented stress reliever. Turn on your favorite comedy film, stream a stand-up special, watch a compilation of funny YouTube videos, or call someone who always makes you laugh. Prioritizing joy and connection can have a powerful impact on mood.
Talk About It
Normalizing mental health issues is important. Millions of people are dealing with this, so you may be surprised by how helpful opening up the conversation with friends and family may be. If you feel like you need the extra support from a professional therapist, meeting with one throughout the winter could be extra helpful.