Seasonal Affective Disorder is Real, and Here Are Some Ways to Combat It
As fall transitions into winter, people are at a higher risk for seasonal affective disorder. If you are one of thousands of people struggling with seasonal depression, here are ways to get out of your slump.
It’s natural to get some level of weather-inspired blues around the winter months. However, for many people, this can be a very real mental health strain. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is not an easy thing to deal with, but luckily, there are ways to manage it.
With fall and winter months comes shorter days, less sunlight, and colder temperatures. For many, this also means waking up in the dark, spending less time outside, and experiencing mood swings and depressive tendencies.
The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as a “type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons.” Most people experience this in the fall and winter months, although sometimes seasonal depression can be associated with spring and summer as well.
“As Daylight Saving Time comes to an end and the darker, shorter days of winter begin, it is important to remember the impacts that this time of year can have on sleep health and the body,” said Mark Aloia, a psychologist specializing in sleep medicine.
“Some people can find it difficult to adjust to the change. This is because the body's circadian system—which helps balance and indicate a person’s sleep cycle with cues from the environment, including sunlight and darkness—is disrupted. Many times, inadequate, disrupted sleep can lead to less productivity throughout the day, and even affect people in ways they may not predict—from sleep deprivation to seasonal affective disorder.”
Seasonal symptoms. As it turns out, what you think is just “winter blues” might be something more serious. SAD is something that needs attention, maybe medication, and even therapy. Your seasonal funk might be more than you think. Pay attention to if you’re experiencing the following SAD signs and symptoms:
- feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- having problems with sleeping
- experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- feeling sluggish or agitated
- having difficulty concentrating
- feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
While these symptoms apply to general cases of SAD, there are some particular signs that are correlated with fall and winter SAD such as:
- appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Spring and summer SAD, or summer depression, may have the following signs:
- trouble sleeping (insomnia)
What causes SAD? The answer, really, is largely unknown. However, our bodies are acutely aware to changes in weather and season. Some factors that do affect our bodies during seasonal changes are the following:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. A decrease in sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock and trigger feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might affect SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a decrease in serotonin levels and trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. Melatonin also affects sleep patterns and mood, and a change in season can disrupt the body’s balance of melatonin and trigger symptoms of SAD.
Who is affected by SAD? Research shows that SAD is more common in women than men and in younger people than older people. Of course, with any form of depression, there are a handful of other factors that can increase your risk of seasonal affective disorder. These include:
- Family history of forms of depression
- Having major depression or bipolar disorder
- Living far from the equator with lower levels of sunlight and longer winter days
What to do about it? Luckily, there are a number of ways you can work on getting out of that seasonal depressive slump. Solutions can be as important as getting help to something as simple as changing your light bulbs:
- Speak to a doctor about how you’re feeling. If you even think you might have a form of depression, it is crucial that you seek professional help so that you can cope.
- There are such things as “wake-up lights” that mimic natural sunlight. Research shows that people do best when they rise with light, and exposure to bright light in the morning can help people feel more ready for their day.
During winter months when the sun does not rise until later, many people find it helpful to simulate the rays from the rising sun flooding your room to help you gently wake up. There are a number of wake-up lights on the market.
- Your Google Home or Alexa could come in handy. Many people use these devices and their gentle sleep and wake features to adjust lights when going to bed or waking up. With gentle sleep, you can set your lights to a warm white color and have them dim slowly to help you sleep. In wake-up light, you can use the wake feature to brighten your lights over a period of 30 minutes.
- Light therapy boxes are one of the most commonly used products to help combat SAD, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). These boxes emit bright lights to simulate natural outdoor light, and research suggests even a little as 30 minutes of this therapy could be helpful for someone with SAD.
“The most widely used and extensively investigated treatment for SAD is light therapy (i.e., daily exposure to bright artificial light during the symptomatic months),” said Dr. Kelly Rohan in a study for the APA. “Light therapy devices rigorously tested in clinical trials for SAD emit a controlled amount of cool, white fluorescent or full spectrum light with a built-in screen to filter out harmful ultraviolet rays.”
- Weighted blankets are exactly what they sound like—and they are supposedly effective. Weighted blankets have been growing in popularity for people with insomnia and anxiety in particular, mostly because it provides a sense of security.
There is medical science behind the idea of weight on the body and sleep abilities, and many studies have already proven the effectiveness of these cozy décor items. For example, they can often decrease a person’s cortisol levels and help them calm down and settle the nervous system.
The changing of the seasons can make us all a little moody sometimes. However, for many, this goes beyond just “winter blues” and becomes something much more serious. If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of seasonal affective disorder, it’s important to seek help and find ways to stay healthy and happy all year ‘round.