By Angela Borders
May 3, 2019
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and What Can We Do to Cope?
Now that winter is over, are you noticing an improvement in your overall mood? Its possible you might struggle with seasonal affective disorder. We intended for this post to be published a couple of months ago, but I think it serves its purpose just as well right now when I’m seeing lots of people coming out of a seasonal funk. -Joe Borders, MFT.
With winter in full swing, many may be feeling cooped up or a bit down in the dumps looking out at a landscape of rain or snow right now. But while for some winter weather is a bit of a bummer, for others it can be a very real problem for their mental health. Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a specific type of depression that comes and goes with specific seasons, usually the winter, though it can occur in summer as well. This blog post seeks to explain what SAD is, and to offer some tools and resources for coping.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a particular type of depression that is linked with the coming and going of the seasons. The National Institute of Mental Health defines the symptoms of SAD by saying:
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not considered as a separate disorder. It is a type of depression displaying a recurring seasonal pattern. To be diagnosed with SAD, people must meet full criteria for major depression coinciding with specific seasons (appearing in the winter or summer months) for at least 2 years. Seasonal depressions must be much more frequent than any non-seasonal depressions.
Symptoms of Major Depression
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleep
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
Symptoms of the Winter Pattern of SAD include:
- Having low energy
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
Symptoms of the less frequently occurring summer seasonal affective disorder include:
- Poor appetite with associated weight loss
- Episodes of violent behavior
It’s important to note that having any one of these symptoms, and especially having it in a way that doesn’t disrupt ability to thrive or complete everyday tasks certainly doesn’t necessarily qualify one as having a diagnosis of SAD. However, knowing the signs and symptoms of SAD, especially if you or someone you know struggles with/has struggled with depression in the past can be helpful.
What Causes SAD?
Much is still unknown about seasonal affective disorder, and the exact causes are not 100% certain. However, it is often attributed to lower levels of light in winter and fall. Mind, an organization in the UK working to promote mental health access, states that the most common theorized causes are to do with light, serotonin levels, melatonin, and our body clocks, along with other triggers that may cause depression in any season such as a life transition or loss of a loved one.
The idea of “bad” weather getting us down seems pretty common sense, but getting into what gloomy winter weather actually does to our bodies can be pretty eye opening. When there is less sunlight/when there are less day light hours in the day, our bodies’ levels of melatonin and serotonin are drastically different, and this can affect our overall body clock, energy levels, and mood. Left unchecked this can contribute to a higher risk of depression.
Also, because we are generally less active in colder weather, choosing to stay indoors, possibly getting less exercise, we may be loosing out on the beneficial endorphins exercise gives us as well!
What Can We Do to Cope?
There is much we can do to combat these problems! For one thing, we can seek out those positive endorphines in many different ways.
Just because it’s cold outside, that doesn’t mean we have to forgo exercise. Getting even just a small walk around indoors somewhere (like a mall or similar indoor environment, maybe a gym) can go a long ways.
It’s tempting, especially with all the holidays in the colder months, to let our healthy eating habits go by the wayside, but eating healthy foods helps encourage a healthy mind, so resist the urge to say “ah, it’s sweater weather, let health go to the wayside until summer!” Instead, enjoy seasonal treats in moderation but keep up eating healthy veggies/proteins, and follow what your dietary needs normally are.
Connecting With Others
Just like it can be tempting to eat poorly and not exercise because of the weather, there can be an urge to cocoon off socially as well. Though long rainy days watching TV or reading are nice, too many in a row can lead us to feel too isolated and can potentially lead to feelings of loneliness and sorrow. Know yourself and make sure to connect with others when those sorts of feelings might start creeping up.
Do Things You Enjoy!
Whatever activities or interests usually lift your mood, now is an especially good time to seek them out! Crafting, reading, podcasts, tv shows, music, whatever your interest, embrace it and let it cheer you.
Some Ideas Unique to SAD
All of the above suggestions are pretty common for any form of mental health/well being, but specific to SAD are two other suggestions: Light Therapy, and Vitamin D supplements.
The idea behind light therapy and light “boxes” is that they expose the user to the light one would normally get in warmer, sunnier months. The Mayo Clinic has a good breakdown on the use and benefits of using light therapy and cautions that one should seek guidance from a medical professional before starting treatment.
The use of vitamin D supplements has been debated, and studies have produced mixed results, but at least for some participants, the use of vitamin D was very helpful. It’s noted in the linked article that one group who benefited were found to be deficient in vitamin D originally, so it might be that an excess of the vitamin is not helpful, but for those needing it, it is.
The following links are to more information and resources for coping with and understanding SAD. We hope they are helpful!