• Jissette Nieves

Feeling Sad?

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As fall changes to winter, do you sense a change in your mood as well? When days get shorter and darkness overflows, do you feel slowed down or unmotivated to wake up? Maybe it's difficult to focus on work or relationships. Quite possibly, you just feel down in the dumps. The days get shorter, the light becomes scarce, and many of us respond by avoiding the elements. We park ourselves in front of the TV or snuggle under the covers to stay warm—the human version of hibernating. Some people embrace the season’s quiet, coziness, and snow days. But if you avoid being out in the elements and feel yourself becoming more grumpy or irritable when it’s sunnier on the other side of the planet, you may wonder if it’s more than just a passing seasonal slump. You are not alone. What you may be experiencing is also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

With the changing of the clocks, daylight ends earlier. When this happens, some people may experience emerging feelings of sadness and sluggishness, and fluctuations in weight.


WINTER BLUES

This seasonal depression gets worse in the winter before ending in the spring. Some people may get a mild version of SAD known as the “winter blues.” It’s normal to feel a little down during colder months. You may be stuck inside, and it gets dark early. This condition can make you feel less cheerful, energetic, creative, and productive during the dark, winter days than at other times of the year.

SAD is not caused by the cold per se. The cold can lead us to get less exposure by just staying inside more, and for some people they really dislike the cold, and maybe that kind of bums them out and gets their mood down.

SYMPTOMS OF SAD

People who suffer from SAD may find that they have difficulty waking up in the morning, that they have less energy, that they have an increased appetite. It may be more difficult for them to concentrate. Maybe they have less motivation to do things.

The flip side of it is that the opposite happens in the shorter months, like spring and early summer, where people will perhaps sleep a little less, are maybe more energetic and maybe more active.

The signs and symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day

  • Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and/or hopelessness

  • Low energy and fatigue

  • Low mood

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities

  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much (hypersomnia)

  • Overeating

  • Changes in weight, most typically weight gain

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Isolation and social withdrawal

  • Carb cravings

WHO IT AFFECTS AND ARE AT RISK?

Young people and women are at the highest risk for the disorder, but it can affect anyone. It affects women at rates four times higher than men, with 20-30 years of age being the most common age of onset. You are also more likely to have SAD if you or your family members have depression. Those who live farthest from the equator. SAD is more common in areas far north or south of the equator.


With the changing of the clocks, daylight ends earlier. When this happens, some people may experience emerging feelings of sadness and sluggishness, and fluctuations in weight.

HOW TO COPE WITH IT AND TREATED


SAD can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including light therapy, talking treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), vitamin D supplements or some combination of these. While symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment.


Light therapy, or phototherapy, is a common treatment for SAD. The person in light therapy treatment sits near a light box that mimics natural outdoor light. Light therapy sessions generally last about 10 to 15 minutes at the outset, and gradually increase depending on the severity of a person’s experience with SAD.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that the way we think and behave affects the way we feel. Changing the way you think about situations and what you do about them can help you feel better. Through CBT, you can unlearn negative thoughts and behaviors and learn to adopt healthier thinking patterns and habits. CBT usually takes place over a limited number of sessions. Using a question-and-answer format, your therapist helps you gain a different perspective. As a result, you learn to respond better to stress, pain, and difficult situations.


In the winter, when the days are shorter and people aren’t getting outside as much, it makes sense that people might become deficient in vitamin D, a vitamin that the body produces in response to sunlight. Research has shown that all people are vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency in the winter, especially those with SAD. Vitamin D supplements may help SAD, but not enough research has been done to support this theory. The research that does exist is mixed. Although vitamin D supplements are not proven to treat or prevent SAD, talk to your doctor to see if they may be helpful for you.


TIPS FOR PREVENTING SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER


There are many preventative measures that can help people transition into the winter months without experiencing negative changes in mood and while we're still coping with the pandemic, it's especially important to remember to stay positive. In times of constant negative messaging, strive for a positive attitude and move forward with determination and hope. Engage in activities that are positive, heartwarming, stress-reducing and laughter-inducing - and remember that we will get through this.

Tips that can be included:


  • Try to spend some time outdoors each day, even on a cloudy day.

  • Consider investing in a light box to use before the fall and winter months set in.

  • Engage in some form of physical activity at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Regular exercise helps balance hormones and neurotransmitters that affect your mood.

  • Maintain an active social life.

  • Ensure you are getting the foods you need to stay healthy and keep your mood in check.

  • Consider talking to your doctor about checking your nutrition levels to spot any deficiencies that may lead to or exacerbate the symptoms of SAD.

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule.

  • Find a qualified therapist or counselor with whom you can discuss your symptoms and develop a good self-care routine.


With professional mental health treatment and good self-care throughout the winter, the prognosis for managing SAD is good. Self-care may include keeping track of mood, eating well, getting exercise and adequate sleep, taking vitamin D supplements, and planning social activities. SAD is seasonal and comes and goes, but it is possible to find relief, even in the middle of winter.


Engage in activities that are positive, heartwarming, stress-reducing and laughter-inducing - and remember that we will get through this.

Planning a healthier lifestyle is never a bad idea, but don’t beat yourself up if your symptoms don’t improve right away. Don’t brush them off as the winter blues and simply hunker down until spring. Asking for help is a sign of strength and movement toward a better version of yourself. Consider how you can start managing seasonal affective disorder today and live a healthier life in every season.