What is seasonal depression (seasonal affective disorder)?
As the end of January arrives, we find ourselves in the doldrums of winter. The winter blues are a common experience for many people living in certain climates, and the lack of sunlight, limited time outside, and potential disdain for cold weather create the perfect winter storm that contributes to low energy and mood. But how do you know when your winter blues have gone a step further and turned into something more serious?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is characterized by the presence of some or all of the following symptoms: depressed mood, low energy, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, change in sleep patterns, loss of pleasure or interest in activities, changes in appetite, craving complex carbohydrates, feelings of sadness, and in more severe cases suicidal ideation. These symptoms begin to present during specific seasons and go into full remission during the other seasons. Seasonal affective disorder is more serious than the ‘winter blues’ as it impacts one’s ability to function on a day to day basis. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder may find it difficult to concentrate effectively at work, struggle to be an active participant in relationships, and/or complete daily tasks (APA, 2013).
Statistics show that 5% of the U.S. population experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder. Out of this 5%, 4 out of 5 cases are seen in women. People with diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder and/or Bipolar Disorder are more susceptible to experiencing SAD (Mental Health America, 2021).
Preventing seasonal depression
Although the winter blues are temporary and require no treatment, Seasonal Affective Disorder is a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (APA, 2013) that requires treatment. There are many treatments and lifestyle changes that can be implemented to decrease the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Here are a few!
Schedule a visit with your doctor
Ensuring that you are attending annual doctors appointments and receiving the proper testing can help uncover potential alternative causes for seasonal related issues. For example, having low levels of Vitamin D can contribute to low mood and decreased energy levels.
Seek out support from a mental health professional
A mental health professional is not only a source of emotional support but can also help you assess lifestyle factors that could be contributing to depressive symptoms. A therapist can help you create a sustainable treatment plan to support a decrease in your depressive symptoms. If necessary, a therapist may also help you find reliable referrals for additional services such as a dietitian or psychiatrist.
Create a structured sleep routine
Quality sleep has a strong association with stable mood and energy levels (Suni, 2022). Engaging in standard sleep hygiene protocol, such as avoiding napping, being mindful of caffeine and substance use, using your bed for sleep and intimacy only, and avoiding too much blue light exposure close to bedtime, are good starting points. It is also important to attempt to access light as soon as you wake up whether that be naturally through sun exposure or through the use of a light therapy box. Exposing yourself to light first thing in the morning signals to your body that it is time to wake up.
Try light therapy
Researchers have found that the use of light therapy boxes (which are devices that mimic outdoor light) can contribute to increased mood and feelings of happiness (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Light therapy boxes also help by regulating our circadian rhythm which gets thrown off in the winter due to the lack of sunlight. Make sure you consult a professional or do proper research to ensure you are purchasing a SAD specific light therapy box as there are different light therapy boxes used to treat alternative conditions.
Although this option may seem like the opposite of what you want to do during the cold months, getting outside is vital for our well being. The sun may not be as visible during the winter months, but your body is still getting the Vitamin D it needs to lift serotonin levels when exposed to sunlight. Researchers have shown that interacting with nature and getting outside can decrease our likelihood of experiencing brain fog and memory issues (Weir, 2020).
Keep on moving
People often become more sedentary during the winter months which can be attributed to the cold weather and sometimes harsh conditions. Investing in at-home workout materials or a gym membership can benefit your overall mental and physical well being and address symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Exercise and movement release a chemical in our brain called endorphins which reduces pain and increases mood.
Eat your vital nutrients
Eating specific nutrients can help balance out low mood, a common symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, and B Vitamins can contribute significantly to mood and energy improvement. Some examples of these foods include fish, orange juice, leafy greens, chickpeas, broccoli, nuts, and seeds. If these foods do not work with your taste buds, try supplementing with a vitamin. Remember to always consult with a medical professional before trying out new supplements.
Lean on your social supports
The cold air of winter makes it tempting to stay inside and cuddle up under a blanket. However, continuing a steady pace of socialization during these months is important to keeping your mood and energy levels up. If you are not feeling ready to brave the cold, invite a friend over and enjoy the warmth of the indoors together. Board games, movies, book clubs, or planning a special outing for the warmer months is a great way to bond with your nearest and dearest.
Embrace the still
During the winter months, it is easy to get caught up in counting down the days until spring arrives. Utilize this time period to embrace the slow and still nature of the winter months before things pick back up again in the spring. This is also an opportunity to embrace the cold weather activities, warm foods, and hot beverages that are more easily available in the winter months. Make a ritual of trying a new hot tea each evening or finding a fun winter activity nearby to attend with friends. Bundle up and enjoy the beauty of the moment!
Trying one or more of these preventative measures is a great way to tackle struggles during the winter months and shift your perspective on what winter is all about. The seasons can teach us a lot about life, reminding us to enjoy the present moment and seek out the silver lining in every phase of the year.
Want to read more about seasonal depression? Check out Part 1 of this series, Seasonal depression: Seasonal Depression – Is it more than just the winter blues?, by Mahin Khader, MS, LPC.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.
Mayo Clinic (2022). Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatment: Using A Light Box. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/in-depth/seasonal-affective-disorder-treatment/art-20048298
Mental Health America (2021) Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mhanational.org/conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad
Suni, E. (2022). Mental Health and Sleep. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/mental-health
Weir, Kristen (2020). Nurtured by Nature. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
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