Despite the excitement that comes with the winter months and associated holiday season, it’s normal for individuals to feel a bit down. The cold and darkness have a lot to do with the change in mood that many people feel. And while some may shrug it off as the “winter blues” or “seasonal funk,” there is more to it than that.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
A type of depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) typically comes and goes based on the different seasons. The condition often peaks in the dark, cold months of autumn and winter and then subsides in the warmer, brighter months of spring and summer. Regardless, it is a misconception that SAD is a “lighter” version of major depression. Rather this condition is a more specific kind or type of major depression. The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are simply experienced at a particular time of year – with the changing of the seasons – and then subside or go into remission.
The specific cause of SAD is yet unknown. However, research indicates that several factors may contribute to this type of depression. The change in hours of sunlight during the winter months interrupts the natural circadian rhythm, which, in turn, reduces levels of serotonin and melatonin in the body. These chemicals are responsible for regulating mood and sleep respectively and are major contributors to depression.
In most cases of SAD, symptoms start out mild and become more severe with the progression of the season. The most common symptoms include:
• A pervasive feeling of depression most days of the week
• A lack of interest in once enjoyable activities
• A general feeling of low energy or fatigue
• A reoccurring trouble sleeping
• Otherwise unexplained changes in weight or appetite
• A change in ability to concentrate
• A unspecified feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
While it is less common, some individuals may experience the opposite pattern of the condition and have symptoms that peak in spring or summer. Regardless, the symptoms are typically the same, as is the progression of symptoms.
Who Is At Risk for SAD?
SAD can affect anyone; however, several factors have been found to increase one’s risk of the condition. The condition is typically diagnosed more frequently in women than men as well as younger adults versus older adults. Additionally, individuals are at an increased risk for the disorder if they:
• Have a family history of the SAD or another type of depression
• Have been diagnosed mental health condition, such as major depression
• Live far from the equator where the differences between winter and summer are even greater
What Are the Best Ways to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD can have a major impact on one’s productivity and day-to-day lifestyle, so it’s important for individuals to find effective ways to manage their condition:
1. Seek light.
As an obvious contributor to SAD, light is also an effective therapy for treating the condition. Because natural light is in such short supply during the winter months, though, a light box may be a necessary management tool. To get the most benefit, individuals should look for a light box that generates at least 10,000 lux of white or blue light.
2. Take vitamin D.
Most individuals get significantly less sunlight during winter, which also affects the amount of vitamin D produced in the body. Getting enough of this important nutrient can also help manage depression. Several foods are naturally rich in vitamin D; however, it is best for individuals struggling with the disorder to take a dietary supplement through the winter months.
3. Get active.
Maintaining a regimen of low-intensity exercise, even as little as 1 hour each week, can offset the fatigue and lethargy that are hallmark symptoms of SAD. Exercise not only boosts endorphins – the feel good chemicals in the body – but it also helps regulate the circadian rhythm and can support better day-night cycles in individuals struggling with SAD.
4. Seek help.
Often individuals struggling with SAD and other forms of depression are tempted to withdraw and avoid seeking personal interaction of any kind. One of the best things individuals struggling with seasonal affective disorder can do, though, is keep in touch with trusted family members and friends and seek help when they need it. This help may also include care from a certified professional who can help establish an effective plan for managing the disorder.
While it is normal to experience an ebb and flow of feelings, especially during the winter months, if it affects one’s ability to live life and maintain a normal routine, it’s a problem. At this point seeking care from a reliable mental health professional can make all the difference.