Seasonal affective disorder - Mental disorder diagnosis and treatment (abstract)

Why Do We Get (SAD) Seasonal Affective Disorder in the Winter? Ways to Overcome the Gloom 

ChatOwl Depression

Reading Time: 10 minutes

As the long winter months rage on, it can be difficult to know whether you are just feeling a little blue or if it is something more serious…do you have SAD or are you just sad?

Although humans can be predictable, sometimes we don’t see the patterns in our own behaviors. For some, the winter is filled with the holidays, snowstorms, or even just a dip in the temperature that might bring a chill, but no other adverse consequences.

But for those who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the long winter months can really take their toll. Many have debated what causes SAD, or if it is even a real thing. But for those who sufferer during specific times of the year, there is no denying that it exists. 

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. There is also a milder form of SAD that most likely affects about ten to twenty percent of the population. It is even more common for people who live farthest from the equator because the amount of sunlight that you get during the winter months diminishes the farther you are.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is a cyclical depression that is dependent on seasonal change. It usually begins for some as early as late in the fall, and it can last until the spring or sometimes even the summer months. Many believe that SAD is more common in those who are already predisposed to mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The critical component of SAD is that you typically feel much more depressed during the cold weather months than you do in the more tepid weather of spring and summer. 

Although most people believe it is all about the wintertime and doom and gloom of not seeing the sun for months at a time, some people experience SAD during the summer months too. Seasonal Affective Disorder can happen when the sun is shining, and the warm weather makes most feel active. The one thing that SAD sufferers have in common, across the board, is that it is defined as a depressive episode that happens with 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.”

Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

What Causes Seasonal Defective Disorder?

There is no clear consensus about what the cause of SAD is. But most scientists believe that it stems from the brain and hormones. During different times of the season, certain hormones that are produced deep in the brain are triggered due to evolution. And many scientists believe that the innate hormones released affect mood.

The most popular theory is that as the sunlight of the summer gives way to the winter, the brain releases less serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is linked to feeling good. When you have a lack of serotonin, it can lead to a dysfunction of the pathways of the brain that regulates mood. And that dysfunction can lead to feelings of depression, weight gain, and excessive fatigue.

Another theory is that SAD is linked to vitamin deficiency. Vitamin D is a substance that can not be made by the body. The body can only get Vitamin D through outside sources. And although those sources can come from eating foods like dairy, and through supplementation, the majority of vitamin D we get 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. 

Circadian Rhythms

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.

The Production of Melatonin

When it is dark, your body produces something called melatonin. It is a hormone that helps you sleep at night. And when the sunlight is out, it triggers your brain not to produce melatonin so that you feel more alert and awake. When the shorter days of winter come along, the body might produce too much melatonin, which can drain your energy and make you feel lethargic. And over months, that lethargy can lead to depression.

The Production of Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain. It is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for mood regulation. When production is lowered, it can lead to feelings of depression, and it can have a severe impact on your memory, libido, appetite, and sleep. The production of serotonin is also influenced by the number of hours the sun shines. So having less during times of more darkness can lead to depression.

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 risk factor to vitamin D deficiency is a high level of melanin in a person’s skin. If you have a high production of melanin naturally, the winter months can be especially tricky. And because it is usually related to a lack of sunlight, those who live in climates where the sun shines year-round are most prone to symptoms of seasonal affective

Risk Factors for SAD

Seasonal Affective Disorder can affect anyone, but it is most prevalent in areas that are farther from the equator. Other risk factors are:

Gender

Current statistics show that three out of four sufferers of SAD are women. But while women tend to experience it more, when men have SAD, their symptoms tend to be more severe.

Age

Younger people tend to be diagnosed with SAD more often, with most people first being diagnosed between the ages of 18 to 30. It is less likely that you will experience SAD as you get older.

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 during an episode, and things clearing up significantly as the seasons change. Signs of SAD 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 
  • Irritability
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Being stressed or tense
  • Losing physical contact with people in your life
  • Symptoms of Season Affective Disorder

The signs of symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder are similar to other types of depression. The main characteristic of SAD is its cyclical nature. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed nearly every day and most of the day
  • Lost 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

The Symptoms of Winter and Fall SAD differs from the spring and summer. They include:

  • Spending more time sleeping
  • Changes in your appetite or the desire for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Low energy or tiredness

The Symptoms of Spring and Summer SAD

The 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 People With Bipolar Disorder

People diagnosed with bipolar disorder can go through a period of cycles that are predictable by the season too. During the fall, they tend to experience more depressive symptoms. And then when the spring hits, they become more manic.

smiley with bad mood changes to happy smiley, drawn on a chalkboard

Ways of Overcoming Seasonal Depression

Because seasonal depression is cyclical, deciphering a pattern will help you devise a plan to combat it. If you notice that you get depressed at the same time yearly, you can develop a plan to overcome feelings of sadness, guilt, and loneliness. 

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”

Victor Hugo

Get Some Exercise

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 the cold or warmth, being outdoors communing with nature has additional 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 

The greatest mood enhancer comes from communing with others. Social support is one of the best ways to combat feelings of loneliness and depression. Find a hobby with others, join a running club, or just find a group of people who have the same interests as you. Sometimes it only takes getting out of your element to shake your feelings of sadness.

And talking with people and feeling a part of a community is the best SAD cure there is. Consider volunteering or finding a support group of people who are also dealing with depression. Sometimes just hearing that you aren’t alone can be enough to help you overcome your depressed feelings. 

Watch What you Eat

It is important to maintain a healthy diet for good health, and it is an excellent way to reduce your risk of SAD. Eating the right types of nutrients will help to minimize your mood swings and have you feeling much happier. Don’t succumb to cravings for junk food.

Choose complex carbohydrates instead to help reduce your body’s production of insulin that can lead to elevated blood sugar levels. Try also to incorporate omega-3 fats, which are found in foods like walnuts, oily fish, and soybeans. Studies show that they can have the same boosting effect as anti-depressants.

Vitamin Supplementation

Vitamin D is a substance that you get from the sun. And although you can get it from the foods you eat, when sunlight is diminished, if you aren’t getting enough in your diet, it can lead to bouts of depression and anxiety. If you can’t get outdoors, check with your doctor to see if supplementation is necessary, or invest in light therapy.

It can help raise your level of vitamin D and stave away any adverse effects that not being in the great outdoors can have. If you have darker skin, that might indicate that you have higher levels of melanin. It also means that you require more vitamin D than the average person. 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 get as much natural sunlight as possible. When possible, spend time outside in the direct sunlight. Even the slightest bit of natural light can be an excellent mood enhancer. When indoors, try to open up the drapes and blinds to let the natural light in and sit near windows. There is some evidence to suggest that painting your walls with a lighter color or using a daylight simulation bulb, instead of a regular one, can help lighten your mood.

Medication

For some, the long winter months are just too much to handle. If you find that you are depressed enough that it is altering your daily routine or disabling the way that you function, then it might be appropriate to consider medication.

Anti-depressants are an excellent way 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 ahead. Try to limit stress, which can make depression worse.

When you start to become overwhelmed, ask for help from others. Also, practice relaxation techniques that help reduce negative emotions and fear. Meditation and yoga are excellent ways to be more mindful. And lastly, do one small thing every day that will make you smile. Sometimes you just need to have a carrot to get past the valleys in life.

Light Therapy

Young woman administering a light therapy agains winter depression

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 treatment is effective for as many as 85% of SAD cases. But the amount of therapy you need depends on your symptoms and the 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

A Light Box

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. Most people who use a lightbox see a marked improvement in just a few days. And after using it for about two weeks, some people see a complete remission from SAD. If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, beware that light therapy can trigger a manic episode. So it is best to be under the careful watch of a mental health professional.

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 over thirty to forty-five minutes so that you aren’t waking to darkness. It can help to jump-start your circadian rhythm back to normal. And it can also help to improve mood. 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.

The best way to combat SAD is to recognize the cycle and take steps to overcome the symptoms before they surface. Consulting a mental health professional is the best way to figure out how to combat your feelings of depression and to find a healthier and happier new you. Contact the professionals of Chat Owl today to establish a routine to get past whatever cycle of depression is keeping you stuck.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2686645/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4673349/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10888476

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004726/

https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/19/3/e21

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181775/

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