As the long winter months and seasonal disruptions rage on, it can be difficult to know whether you are just feeling a bit under the weather or if there’s something more serious.
Do you have SAD – seasonal affective disorder or are you just sad?
Although humans can be predictable, sometimes we don’t see the patterns in our behavior. For some, the winter is filled with the hustle and bustle of the holidays, snowstorms, and dips in temperatures. While some don’t experience the adverse consequences of SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, the long winter months can be grueling for those who do!
Current estimates are that about one to two percent of the population will experience SAD. And among that percent, most will be young people and women.
Also, a milder form of SAD affects about ten to twenty percent of the population. It’s more common for those who live farthest from the equator because the amount of sunlight during the winter months diminishes the farther you are from the equator. Let’s dive further into what SAD is, what are the causes, risk factors, and seasonal depression symptoms of SAD, and how can you overcome SAD?
What is SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder is a cyclical depression that is dependent on seasonal change. It usually begins for some as early as the fall, and it can last until the spring or sometimes even into the summer months.
Researchers have debated what causes SAD, or if it’s even a real thing. But for those who suffer during specific times of the year, there’s no denying that it exists.
SAD is more prevalent in those already predisposed to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The critical component of SAD is that you typically feel depressed during difficult times of life and cold weather months than throughout more stable periods and times of tepid weather.
Although most people believe it’s all about the winter and the doom and gloom of not seeing the sun for months at a time, some people experience SAD during the summer months, too. SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers have in common, across the board, what’s defined as a depressive episode that happens regularity or cyclically, depending on the individual.
“If clouds are blocking the sun, there will always be a silver lining that reminds me to keep on trying.”
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There’s not really a clear consensus concerning the cause of SAD. Many scientists believe SAD stems from the brain and hormones. During different times of the season, certain hormones produce deep in the brain and are triggered due to evolution. Scientists also share that the innate hormones released affect moods.
A key theory is that as the sunlight of the summer gives way to the winter, the brain releases less serotonin. While Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to feeling good, when you have a lack of serotonin, it can lead to a dysfunctional pathway within the brain which is regulating your mood. This process can cause feelings of seasonal depression, weight gain, and excessive fatigue.
SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder causes:
Vitamin D Deficiency
Most people are completely unaware that they have a vitamin D deficiency or how disruptive having one can be. Some people have disorders that can limit their absorption of Vitamin D, which only becomes worse during the months when they aren’t outdoors.
Another vitamin D deficiency risk factor is an increased level of melanin in a person’s skin. The winter months can be especially tricky for those who have high natural melatonin production. Since this is generally related to a lack of sunlight, people living in climates where the sun shines year-round are most prone to seasonal depression symptoms.
The theory of vitamin deficiency stems from the fact that Vitamin D is a substance that can not be produced by the body. The body can only get Vitamin D through outside sources. Those sources can come from eating foods like dairy, oatmeal, and vegetables, and through supplementation, but the majority of vitamin D comes from the sun.
So during the long winter months, not only is sun exposure limited by the number of hours that it shines, most people don’t spend the same amount of time outdoors as they would in summer, for example. This deprives people of the Vitamin D they need to stay motivated and healthy.
Your body is guided by an internal clock of wake and sleep cycles that respond to the amount of light outside. The light and darkness outside are used to regulate your appetite, mood, and sleep. When the light is diminished, it can disrupt your internal clock and leave you feeling sluggish, sleepy, and at times, disoriented.
Our bodies naturally generate melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep at night. And when it’s light out and not dark, this triggers your brain not to produce the melatonin it would otherwise produce in darkness. This results in you feeling more awake.
With shorter winter days, your body may produce too much melatonin. This can drain energy and make you feel tired. Over time, that lethargic feeling can lead to seasonal depression.
Serotonin, the Neurotransmitter
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain, regulates your moods. When production is lowered, it can lead to feelings of depression and have a severe impact on your memory, libido, appetite, and sleep. Serotonin production lowers when there is less sunshine and more darkness. This can ultimately lead to depression.
Risk Factors for SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder is most prevalent in areas that are farther away from the equator and can affect anyone. Risk factors are:
Gender. Current statistics show that three out of four sufferers of SAD are women. While women tend to experience SAD more frequently, men also experience SAD. And when men suffer from SAD, often their symptoms tend to be more severe.
Age. Younger people–between the ages of 18 and 30–are generally diagnosed with SAD more often.
Family History. If you have a relative who has been diagnosed with SAD or another type of depression, then you are at a higher risk of being diagnosed yourself.
Do I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are just blue or if you have SAD. The most common symptom of SAD is the cyclical nature in which you find yourself more depressed. And although it is not uncommon for people to be a bit more down at certain times of the year, SAD is characterized by disrupting your quality of life. SAD signs include:
- Feeling like you want to sleep a lot more than usual or having problems falling or staying asleep
- Being too tired to function in your normal capacity
- Weight gain and cravings for starchy and sugary foods
- Feeling guilty or excessively critical of yourself
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
Being stressed or tense and grief from losing physical contact with people in your life can also cause symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The signs of symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are similar to other types of depression with the main characteristic being its cyclical nature. Symptoms include:
- Feeling depressed nearly every day and most of the day
- Loss of interest in things you enjoyed doing
- Low energy
- Sleep issues
- Alterations in weight or appetite
- Agitated or sluggish mood
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Thoughts of harming oneself, death, or suicide
- Unexplained chronic pain
- Lack of concentration
- Excessive use of alcohol to self-medicate
- Fall and Winter Season Affective Disorder
These SAD symptoms differ from the spring and summer.
Symptoms of Winter and Fall SAD
- Spending more time sleeping
- Changes in your appetite or the desire for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Low energy or tiredness
Symptoms of Spring and Summer SAD
Symptoms of spring and summer typically arise at the onset of summer, and they include:
- Poor appetite or weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Anxiety and agitation
- Seasonal effects on those with Bipolar Disorder
Now, let’s look at several ways you can work toward overcoming seasonal depression.
Ways of Overcoming Seasonal Depression
Because seasonal depression is cyclical, deciphering a pattern will help you devise a plan to combat it. So, if you notice that you get depressed at regular cycles each year, you can form a plan to overcome feelings like sadness, guilt, and loneliness.
“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”
If you are an outdoor type of person, don’t ignore it during the cold winter months or let the summer heat keep you inside. If you don’t like extreme heat or frigid weather, then find a gym and enjoy a class. Variety is the best way to keep yourself motivated. Just ten minutes of getting your heartbeat up can do wonders for your mood.
If you can stand extreme temperatures, being outdoors communing with nature offers benefits for enhancing your mood and making you feel much better.
Studies show that using exercises that have both a rhythmic movement and are continuous are best to overcome depression. Activities like walking, dancing, or jogging that use both the upper and lower body, are the best ways to lift your spirits.
Find Social Support
An excellent mood enhancer involves communing with others. Social support helps to combat feelings of depression and loneliness. Discovering a hobby with others, joining a running club, or just finding a group of people who have your same interests. Getting out of your element can shake feelings of sadness.
Talking with people and feeling a part of a community is the best SAD cure there is. Support groups and volunteering can also help one deal with depression.
Watch What You Eat
Maintaining a healthy diet is an excellent way to reduce your risk of SAD. Don’t succumb to cravings for junk food. By eating nutritional foods, you can help minimize mood swings and feel happier.
Choose complex carbohydrates instead to help reduce insulin production that can lead to elevated blood sugar levels. And consider incorporating omega-3 fats found in foods such as walnuts, oily fish, and soybeans.
Vitamin D can be naturally obtained from direct sunlight exposure. So, if you aren’t able to go outdoors, check with a doctor to see if supplementation is necessary.
It can help raise your vitamin D levels and stave away any adverse effects of lack of vitamin D. During those months that you don’t see the sun as much, you might need to get more sunlight, whether that is in the form of an oral supplement or a sunlight substitute.
Get as Much Light as Possible
The key to combating SAD is to soak in natural sunlight. When you can, spend time outside in direct sunlight. When indoors, try to open up the blinds to let the natural light in and sit near windows.
The long winter months can be long and frustrating to handle. If you are depressed, and it’s altering your daily routine or disabling the way that you function, then it might be appropriate to talk about medication.
Antidepressants may be considered to level out your mood. You don’t have to take them for the long-term, usually, being on them until you can find a happier you is enough. If you can’t seem to overcome your feelings of depression and anxiety, then speaking with a counselor to evaluate your mental condition is not only warranted; it is necessary.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Engaging in CBT is an excellent way to combat SAD. It works by minimizing your negative attitudes, self-talk, and behaviors that can sometimes make depression worse.
The right therapist can help you to overcome many of the symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder. And unlike medication, it is a technique that you can use to manage your stress without any adverse side effects.
Know Your Triggers
Once you realize that there is a cyclical nature to your anxiety and depression, it makes it easier to both spot the triggers and to be prepared. If you know that January is a time when you get more down than usual, you can prepare for it by planning. Try to limit stress, which can make depression worse.
When you start to become overwhelmed, ask for help. Also, practice relaxation techniques that help reduce negative emotions and fear. Meditation and yoga are excellent ways to be more mindful. One small step daily can encourage you to feel more joyful.
Because it is more difficult to get natural sunlight during the winter months, light therapy, or phototherapy, is a way to expose your body to light that mimics sunlight. Studies show that light for seasonal depression treatment is effective for as many as 85% of SAD cases. Although the amount of therapy needed depends on the symptoms and disruption of your circadian cycles.
So before engaging in light therapy, it is a good idea to check with a mental health professional to ensure that you are getting the proper dosage. If you understand the cyclical nature of your SAD symptoms, you can preempt it by beginning light therapy before they surface.
Two Ways to Administer Light Therapy
1. A Lightbox
A lightbox can deliver as much as ten times the average intensity of regular indoor lighting. For most, sitting 12 inches away from a 10,000-lux light for about fifteen to thirty minutes is enough. A lightbox administers white light, with the absence of ultraviolet rays, which can be harmful.
The light does need to enter your eyes, but do not look directly into it. And after using it for about two weeks, some people see marked improvements and some realize complete remission from SAD. If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, beware that light therapy can trigger a manic episode. So, it’s best to be under the careful watch of a mental health professional.
2. A Dawn Simulator
A dawn simulator is a device that helps to increase the amount of light that you have in your bedroom to simulate a natural sunrise. It works by gradually making your room lighter for over thirty to forty-five minutes so that you aren’t waking to darkness. And it can also help to improve mood by jump-starting your circadian rhythm to normal. The biggest benefit is that, unlike a lightbox, a dawn simulator will not trigger a manic episode in people with bipolar disorder.
There are some triggers that we all have that can make us feel blue at specific times of the year. Seasonal Affective Disorder goes beyond just feeling a little down. It is a cyclical depression that people experience throughout the seasons.
Successfully Combating SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder
Successfully combating SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder requires recognizing the cycle that is occurring and taking active steps to overcome the symptoms and challenges before or as they surface.
Consulting with a mental health therapist is the best way to figure out how to combat your feelings of SAD and depression and to find a healthier and happier new you. Establish a plan for moving past whatever cycle of depression is keeping you stuck.