As the weather gets colder each autumn and the days become shorter, many people look forward to the changing seasons and the upcoming holiday festivities. But for some, daylight savings time and losing an hour of light in the evenings can trigger the “winter blues.” It’s common to experience a decrease in energy level during the fall and winter months, but for about 5% of Americans, the cold weather can cause a serious mental health condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is SAD & Why Does It Happen?
SAD is recurring major depression with a seasonal pattern, starting and ending with a specific season, receding during other seasons, and recurring each year. It’s most common to experience SAD during the winter months, although rarely some experience it during the spring and summer. This can largely be attributed to a decrease in sunlight, which can trigger lower serotonin activity, the hormone associated with mood stabilization. The lack of sunlight can also cause an overproduction of melatonin, the hormone that causes sleepiness. Lack of sun exposure may also cause a vitamin D deficiency, which plays a role in serotonin production. These factors can vary for different people and thus may present differently.
Signs & Symptoms
If you or a loved one are struggling beyond the basic “winter blues” and suspect you might have SAD, there are many signs and symptoms you can be alert for.
Consistently low mood
Drastic decrease in energy levels
Sleep problems, whether too much or too little
Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Significant increase in over or under eating
Increased cravings for carbohydrates
Avoiding social contact
Increased irritability or anxiety
Certain populations may be more likely to experience SAD. Research shows that SAD occurs four times as often in women than in men, and the age of onset tends to be between 18-30. It has also been found that SAD is more prevalent in populations that live further from the equator, receiving less sun and colder weather. It’s also important to note that people with a family history of depression or people who currently have depression or bipolar are at increased risk for experiencing SAD.
Prevention & Treatment
The first thing that you can do to prevent SAD from taking over your life is to establish a balanced lifestyle. This means getting enough sleep, eating healthy meals, getting physical activity, and having a work-life balance that allows for time with friends and family. If you have a healthy lifestyle as a foundation and are still struggling with symptoms of SAD, then there are a few different treatments you can try. Not every treatment is right for every person, so be sure to talk with your doctor or psychiatrist before making any significant choices. Here are some tips and treatment options for how to combat SAD:
Sunlight. Get out in the sun as much as you can. Whether this means waking up earlier to catch more sunlight, getting outside more, or even sitting closer to a sunny window, sunlight is one of the largest factors in preventing SAD.
Exercise. Moving your body and getting your heart rate up are proven to increase serotonin and endorphins, hormones that can improve your mood.
Vitamin D. Please check with your doctor first to understand your vitamin D levels and see if a vitamin D supplement could be helpful for you.
Light therapy. SAD lamps can be used to help increase your exposure to bright light, helping boost your mood and energy. Again, talk to your doctor about this first, as SAD lamps can cause irritation to the eyes in some individuals.
Psychotherapy. Talk therapy from a mental health professional can be very helpful in helping cope with SAD. Often cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help shift the mindset and negative thought patterns of individuals coping with depression.
Medication. If all the above therapies don’t work for you, it might be time to talk to a psychiatrist or mental health professional about if medication is right for you.
If you or a loved one is believed to be experiencing SAD and it is significantly impacting their life, it’s probably time to reach out to a professional for help. Professional Psychiatric Services is here to help with a variety of treatment options, not only for SAD but many mental illnesses. Call or email us for more information.