While the cooler temperatures and shorter days of fall and winter mean relief from summer heat and sun, they can, for some people, bring mood changes. These changes may take the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during particular seasons, then improves as the next season begins.
In most cases, SAD is more pronounced during these colder months. Nearly half a million Americans experience symptoms of winter-related SAD each year, and 10 to 20 percent of Americans have less severe symptoms, known as the winter blues.
While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, some people — including those who live in northern latitudes, those with a family history of SAD, and those with depression or bipolar disorder — are at greater risk for SAD than others. Women are also more likely to have SAD than men.
Researchers have found that light has a lot to do with this disorder: a lack of sunlight may interrupt the body’s biological clock that usually controls mood, sleep, and hormone levels. No matter what the cause, if left untreated, SAD can interfere with your everyday life and increase your risk of more severe health issues.
SAD Signs to Watch Out For
A diagnosis of SAD is made if you have depression symptoms each season for two consecutive seasons. Symptoms of depression include:
- Feelings of depression all day, on more days than not
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Decreased energy levels
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Sleep problems
In the winter months, those with SAD can expect to have:
- Little energy
- A tendency to overeat and experience weight gain
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal
Those with summertime SAD may notice:
- Weight loss or decreased appetite
- Sleeping problems
- Periods of violent behavior
How to Ease Symptoms of SAD
Symptoms usually improve as a new season begins, whether winter giving way to spring or summer giving way to fall. But when you are at risk for SAD or have experienced symptoms in the past, it’s essential to learn to identify and manage them so you can prepare for the changing seasons.
Being mindful of your seasonal shifts might help you become more aware of your mood fluctuations. Try to capture those changes when the season hits, so you don’t suffer from increased sleep issues, irritability, and fatigue, which are all some of the downers that come with depression.
Regular exercise and sticking with the same wake-up and bedtime every day (even on the weekends) can ease symptoms. In addition, fueling your body with nutritious foods will help keep your energy levels up throughout the day. And be sure to get plenty of natural light: eat lunch at a park instead of your desk, open your blinds and sit closer to bright windows.
Beyond building a healthy lifestyle and sleep routine, here are some of the most common SAD treatment options:
Medication is often prescribed as the first line of treatment for SAD. Drugs are very effective on their own or may work in conjunction with other treatment methods.
Certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are typically used as the first drug of choice for SAD. This is because it’s believed that they may help improve your brain’s serotonin levels, which can boost your mood. These medications try to augment the neurochemicals that manage our behaviors and our mood.
Your doctor may suggest that you take medication before the season begins and even after your symptoms have subsided to ensure they don’t return. It’s also possible that your doctor may try different remedies to learn what works best for you and your symptoms.
This form of treatment has been around since the 1980s, and the central premise behind it is that increasing your exposure to bright, artificial light during the fall and winter months can ease the symptoms of winter-related SAD.
The treatment typically involves sitting in front of a lightbox that emits 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light for 20 to 60 minutes each morning through the fall and winter months. Thankfully, there’s no need to worry about skin-damaging ultraviolet rays as long as you get a lightbox that filters out UV rays.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can help with many mental and emotional health conditions like SAD, depression, anxiety, trauma, or loss of a loved one.
There are many different kinds of talk therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves working to change behavior and thought patterns so that you can learn to focus on and solve problems. It also helps you recognize negative thoughts so you can replace them with positive ones and help you cope with the symptoms of SAD.
Whether you’ve experienced SAD in the past, you’re currently dealing with SAD symptoms, or you’re looking to manage certain lifestyle factors to lower your risk of SAD, regular appointments with your primary care provider are incredibly beneficial.
If this sounds like the situation you or someone you care about is confronting, please get in touch with Good Therapy’s team of licensed professional counselors and therapists today at 630-473-3971.