Colder weather doesn’t just cause a drop in temperature— but it can significantly alter mood as well.
As days grow shorter and darker, it’s common for many of us to experience lower moods or bouts of sadness that start in the late fall and last through the winter season. However, if you’re experiencing cyclic depression that fluctuates with seasonal weather patterns and lasts 4 to 5 months out of the year, you may be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
You might feel inclined to brush it off as nothing more than the winter blues and attempt to wait it out until sunnier days appear. If you’re experiencing depressive symptoms, it’s important to seek help. CareWell Health Medical Center is here to help you manage your Seasonal Affective Disorder. Our caring team is providing educational resources so you can stay on top of your mental health in addition to behavioral health services to get you through the winter season and start feeling better.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression is a mood disorder that occurs cyclicly, beginning during the winter months. Shorter days paired with diminishing sunlight disrupt our normal circadian rhythm, directly impacting our mood and increasing depressive symptoms. During colder months, potent mood-regulating hormones such as melatonin and serotonin get lowered, which contributes to emotional dysregulation and sleep disturbances.
Although seasonal changes can bring on fluctuations in mood, this condition is more severe than dealing with the holiday blues lasting around 40% of the year.
Seasonal Affective Disorder occurs more frequently in women than men. Younger populations are more commonly diagnosed compared to older adults.
Certain risk factors may increase your risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder, including:
- Family history. SAD is more common in people with relatives diagnosed with mental illnesses, such as major depression or schizophrenia.
- Have major depression or bipolar disorder. Symptoms of depression may worsen during seasonal changes if you’ve already been diagnosed with one of these conditions.
- Living away from the equator. SAD affects people living farther north of the equator, in places like Alaska or New England, where it’s more common to experience long periods of diminished sunlight and shorter days during winter months.
- Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is produced in the skin when exposed to sunlight and helps boost serotonin activity. Inadequate sunlight and spending more time indoors lead to lower levels and can result in Vitamin D deficiency.
What Causes SAD?
The specific cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder remains unknown. Some factors that may come into play include:
- Your Biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. Decreased sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock leading to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight may cause a dip in Serotonin— a powerful brain chemical (neurotransmitter) affecting mood, and may play a part in developing SAD.
- Melatonin levels. Seasonal change can disrupt the melatonin levels, a hormone that regulates our natural sleep-wake cycle and sleep patterns in addition to mood.
Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder begin in the late fall and early winter. The most common symptom is a recurring bout of sadness that varies in both duration and intensity that usually disappears when warmer, sunnier days arrive. Although rare, people can also experience depressive symptoms during the spring or summer.
The most common symptom of seasonal Affective disorder is a recurring bout of sadness that varies in duration and intensity. Environmental factors, such as elevated stress or financial woes, might worsen these symptoms.
Speak to one of our behavioral health specialists if you start experiencing the following symptoms:
- Insomnia or trouble falling and staying asleep
- Depressed or irritable mood
- Difficulty focusing
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Feeling burned-out or exhausted
- Increased levels of anxiety
- Apathy, or finding it hard to feel pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed doing.
Specific symptoms for summer-pattern SAD may include:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
- Restlessness and agitation
- Episodes of violent behavior
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy where people with Seasonal Affective Disorder work with a therapist or mental health provider and develops healthy coping strategies to help take back control of their lives. Psychotherapy can almost be as effective as medication. However, it’s common to treat SAD using a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication.
For some people with SAD, environmental changes might not be enough, especially if you’ve been experiencing moderate to severe symptoms. Wellbutrin XL, Aplenzin, and several other extended-release antidepressants may work to prevent or further reduce depressive episodes in people with a history of SAD. You may want to consider speaking with your doctor to see if starting an antidepressant treatment is right for you.
5 Tips To Help Fight Seasonal Affective Disorder
1. Stress Management
Whether practicing meditation or some daily yoga, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help you unwind and breathe more deeply. Unmanaged stress can further compound depression, potentially leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including overindulging in alcohol, eating, or other unhealthy behaviors.
2. Get Active
Although heading out to log a couple of miles in the cold doesn’t sound all too exciting, studies show that regular exercise provides significant benefits to preventing and reducing symptoms of depression.
So while it’s tempting to lay on the couch after a stressful day, pushing yourself to move a little—even for just 10 minutes, can positively affect mood. If you’re beginning, try creating small milestones to stay motivated while setting out to find your equilibrium.
Experiencing bouts of sadness can make it harder to socialize, and people with SAD may find themselves wanting to isolate themselves and rejecting social invites to hang out with friends or family. Making an effort to spend time with loved ones gives us support, a shoulder to cry on, and makes us feel connected.
4. Proper Sleep
Although insomnia and depression go hand in hand, research shows that getting proper sleep is vital to maintaining mental health. Sleep deprivation dramatically affects mood, leaving you feeling irritable, short-tempered, and exhausted. Poor sleep not only makes it harder to cope with stress, but according to a review of 21 different studies, it leads to a two-fold risk of developing depression.
5. Avoid Overeating
Sometimes overindulging provides us comfort in times when facing stress or negative emotions. Instead of relying on unhealthy copy mechanisms that will likely compound issues, focus on getting good nutrition, and filling up on fruits and veggies. Evidence shows that fueling your body with the proper food can help fight against depressive symptoms.
Talk with a Behavioral Health Specialist, 24/7
We understand how lonely depression can be. If you’re dealing with sadness, feelings of anxiety, or other painful emotions, you are not alone. Whether it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder or something else, the caring staff at CareWell Health Medical Center is here to support you during this difficult time, providing the community of Essex County comprehensive behavioral health services, open 24/7.