You may have noticed yourself in past years feeling less energy or more depressed during the winter months. Perhaps you’ve wondered if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD because of how different you feel when the seasons change.
It is especially important for people to be informed on how the seasons can affect their mood, especially this year as the situational depression from the pandemic may intensify due to the winter blues.
After reading this blog you will learn about the symptoms of the disorder, why people can feel different in the winter, common treatments, and lifestyle considerations so you can have the resources to feel confident in the cold and darker months.
Symptoms of Diagnosis
According to medical journals, around 4 to 6 percent of Americans have SAD and they estimate another 10 to 20 percent of people to have a mild form of winter depression. The farther north you go, the higher the prevalence is of people who have seasonal depression. Not surprisingly, it is women who are most at risk.
Looking into the DSM, the diagnostic manual for mental health professionals, SAD is most often recognized by individuals suffering symptoms of depression two years in a row that correlate with the seasons. This can look like feeling low, irritable, or tearful. Many people will feel tired and lethargic and notice changes to their sleeping patterns. With SAD, a person may feel less interested in what they like to do, become more inactive, and may also crave carbs and sugars resulting in weight gain. Someone who suffers from severe SAD may even have thoughts of suicide or of harming themselves.
It is important to talk to your doctor or counselor if you are recognizing any of these symptoms in your own life. SAD primarily affects people in the winter months, although these symptoms can affect people in the spring and summer as well.
Why is it the ‘Winter Blues’?
In the winter months, it might make sense that more people would be sad because of cold weather or being at home more often, but the primary culprit is less sunlight. Having more hours of darkness impacts your circadian rhythm, better known as your body’s internal clock related to your sleep-wake cycle.
Research has been exploring how increased darkness can influence our inner production of hormones and neurotransmitters. For some, what occurs is the overproduction of the melatonin hormone which causes sleepiness. For others it could be reduced serotonin activity which leads to symptoms of depression. This could be because of less vitamin D production in the winter.
Trying Light Therapy
Since SAD can be a reaction from getting less sunlight, many people use light therapy to help reduce symptoms. You may have heard of light boxes or light visors that mimic the light you can get by being outdoors. This is typically used in the morning for about 30 to 60 minutes each day and can help improve mood and motivation. If this is successful, it becomes a regular part of the morning routine until springtime when they can experience more natural daylight.
Other forms of treatment include antidepressants, vitamin D, or counseling with a therapist trained in treating depression, or a combination of some or all of these options. It is important to consult with your medical provider to help make a plan that fits your needs and provides you with support in evaluating treatment effectiveness.
Preparing for Darker Months
Whether or not you have full blown Seasonal Affective Disorder, consider how you tend to feel during the winter months. Many people may have mild responses that show up in their life as a significant change in their energy and mood.
You may have had a habit of going to the gym or attending parties in the winter to help lift your spirits. Without those options, this may be the time to adapt your strategy to consider the impact of the pandemic to make sure you are caring for yourself during this time.
Below are some ways to help boost your mood this winter season:
- Develop a Routine: As much as you can, stick to a regular time of going to bed and getting up in the morning, as this helps to regulate your circadian rhythm. This, in addition to paying attention to your eating patterns and how you fill your time, will aid in building stability.
- Time Outside and Exercise: Even if it is a 10 minute walk outside, soak up any daylight you can while also providing your body with some movement. Exercise can help combat symptoms of depression and create space for yourself.
- Hygge: This is a Danish word that embodies the art of ‘cozy’ and how cultures near the arctic circle thrive in winter. Practicing hygge can look like creating a comfy reading nook, lighting a candle, or making a cup of tea. Are there activities you like that embrace the winter months to build enjoyment?
- Connect: Let your friends and family know if you tend to struggle in the winter and schedule some check-in’s together. Having meaningful social interactions reduces isolation and can improve your mood. You might learn that other people value your support as well.
- Counseling: SAD can make a huge impact in your life and it can be difficult to know where to start. Going to counseling can help you feel supported and learn new ways to manage symptoms.
If you suspect that you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or struggle during the winter months, Pure Health Center is here to help. Please reach out today to learn more about how counseling can work for you.