The new year now is in full swing and along with it, the winter season too. For those of us that don’t live near the equator, the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and it may often seem that gray, chilly skies outnumber the sunny ones.
For many of us, this shift in seasons brings about what we call “the winter blues.” For some of us, however, this becomes something more, a type of clinical depression known as seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. (also known as seasonal depression).
How can you tell the difference between a mild case of the winter blues and S.A.D., and, more importantly, what can you do? In this article, we’ll explain the causes, the symptoms, when to seek treatment, and how to ease seasonal depression.
Causes and Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)
Winter-pattern S.A.D. is the most common form of seasonal depression and the focus of this article. It affects about 10 million Americans every year, women four times more than men, and typically people between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. It also may be more common in those with other mental disorders, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or eating disorders.
Seasonal depression is correlated with the change in weather patterns and, usually, lifestyle patterns as well. There is, obviously, less daylight in the winter, and people often spend more time indoors. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this effect with so many staying home with even less exposure to natural light.
Research so far has shown that low sunlight exposure can affect serotonin and melatonin levels, disrupting the daily rhythms of people with S.A.D. and leading to its typical symptoms:
- Feelings of depression that occur every day, most of the day, and in a seasonal pattern (e.g. the winter months)
- Feeling tired and fatigued; sleeping more than usual
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Changes in appetite or weight gain (typically an increased appetite for carbs and sweets)
- Irritability and anxiety
- Feelings of hopelessness or guilt
- Decreased sex drive
- Decreased ability to focus and concentrate; trouble thinking clearly
- Social withdrawal
These symptoms tend to dissipate around springtime then reappear during winter, or even earlier in the fall.
What You Can Do: How to Ease Seasonal Depression
➢ Talk to Your Doctor
Since S.A.D. is a type of depression, it’s important to see a mental health professional for proper diagnosis.
➢ Light Therapy
Since one of the main factors in developing S.A.D. is less exposure to natural light, light therapy boxes, or phototherapy boxes, are a main line of treatment. The light is brighter than regular light bulbs and it is transmitted in different wavelengths.
It’s important to speak with your doctor before purchasing or beginning light therapy box treatment, so they can recommend the best one for you and advise how and when to use it.
➢ Dawn Simulators
Research has shown that dawn simulators work as effective light therapy for people with mild seasonal depression. Dawn simulators are alarm clocks, but rather than using noise or music to wake, they emit light that gradually grows in brightness, just like the sun.
➢ Prescription Anti-depressants
When you visit your doctor, they can accurately assess your condition, and if appropriate they may prescribe an antidepressant treatment for you.
If beginning a new prescription, it’s important to understand that it can take a few weeks to notice full benefits, and it can also take some adjustment in medications or dosage until you achieve the best results.
➢ Vitamin D Supplements
Low levels of Vitamin D, either caused by dietary choices or low sunlight exposure, is a risk factor for depression and common in people with S.A.D. Consult your physician regarding whether adding Vitamin D supplements is right for you.
➢ Stay Active and Connected: Socialize, Exercise, and Get Outdoors!
This has become more important than ever with the onset of the pandemic. Mental health research conducted during COVID-19 has shown that extended periods of isolation can have long-term psychological effects on people, including depression and PTSD.
- Because the causes of seasonal depression are linked to sunlight, try incorporating outside activities into your daily routine, whenever possible. If you cannot go outside, spend as much time as possible in rooms where windows give generous access to natural light.
- Exercise, on its own, has demonstrated great benefits in relieving symptoms of depression. It will also help offset any weight gain resulting from S.A.D.
- Maintain your connections with friends and family. Texting and social media are not enough. In fact, poor social media habits have been linked to increased anxiety and depression in some people.
If possible, meet at a park or somewhere with lots of natural light. If you’re unable to meet in person, make a point of using FaceTime or Zoom for some face-to-face communication and socialization.
➢ Set and Keep a Regular Routine
The absence of light increases production of melatonin and can result in increased feelings of fatigue and sleepiness in people with S.A.D. This, plus decreased serotonin levels, can disrupt daily routines.
Keeping a regular schedule can improve sleep, help avoid overeating (by sticking to set meal and snack times), and help you stay committed to exercise routines.
➢ Learn How to Manage Stress
- Psychotherapy is a great solution for dealing with depression and managing stress and anxiety.
- Identify negative thoughts and behaviors. Journaling can help with this. You can also use a journal to practice gratitude, writing down something you’re thankful for – essentially resetting your mind from a negative thought pattern to a positive one.
- Learn stress management techniques. Ask your doctor for advice on practical methods for managing stress. Relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation are popular solutions, but there are many other options, so find a few that work for you.
- Don’t ask too much of yourself. Set realistic goals while you deal with seasonal depression. Manage tasks better by breaking large to-dos into smaller ones – and let your family and friends help you.
➢ Eat for Your Health
Eat healthy meals, don’t overeat, and avoid drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol and drugs can make depression much worse.
➢ Go on vacation
If you have the opportunity to jet off somewhere warmer and sunnier, by all means, do so!
Seasonal depression is real. If you’re noticing the symptoms mentioned above, don’t brush it off as just the winter blues. Seek help sooner rather than later, and always practice self-care.
Remember, as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said, “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Until then, connect with The Ross Center for more help on your mental health journey.
If you or someone you know is thinking about or in danger of hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741), or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.