Winter can be an unfortunate period of time for many reasons, ranging from the irritation that comes with scraping ice and defrosting your car each morning to the frustration that accompanies higher heating bills. However, for some, winter can be more than just a bummer — it’s a cause of a legitimate form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
As the name implies, SAD is a form of depression that occurs with the changing of the seasons. When the days grow shorter and the sunlight becomes less plentiful, it’s not uncommon for normally happy, healthy individuals to feel a little — or a lot — blue.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Accurately and colloquially referred to as SAD, seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression linked to the shift from one season to another and most commonly occurs as fall gives way to winter. However, seasonal affective disorder can be characterized in two different ways:
- Fall onset: Also known as winter depression, fall-onset SAD begins in late fall to early winter, with symptoms easing in the spring.
- Spring onset: Sometimes referred to as summer depression, spring-onset SAD begins in the spring and usually self-remedies as the weather cools down in the fall. Spring-onset SAD is significantly less common and is often associated with the frustration and discomfort that comes with consistently hot weather.
While the cause of SAD is largely unknown, fall-onset SAD is frequently attributed to a chemical change in the brain associated with less sunlight. Some scientists also believe that melatonin may play a role. As a sleep-related hormone, melatonin causes feelings of fatigue. The body naturally produces more melatonin when it’s dark outside, so shorter and darker days can contribute to increased melatonin production and thus lethargy and exhaustion during the day.
Other symptoms of SAD include:
- Excessive fatigue, particularly during the daytime
- Loss of interest in pastimes and hobbies
- Sensitivity to rejection or insult
- Social withdrawal
- Anxiety and irritability
- Feelings of guilt, sadness, or hopelessness
- Decreased sex drive
- Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
Seasonal affective disorder is most common in older individuals, rarely manifesting in those under 20. In addition, SAD appears more frequently in women than men. Around 5 percent of Americans live with SAD.
Addressing Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of SAD, the best course of treatment isn’t to just grin and bear it until spring rolls around again. With treatment and lifestyle changes, affected individuals have a strong chance of overcoming SAD, lifting the sadness and withdrawal that may accompany winter’s arrival.
As the lack of sunlight is often cited as a cause of SAD in those who feel symptoms of depression in the winter, light therapy has proved to be very effective in affected patients. This doesn’t just mean sitting in well-lit areas; special light sources are available that mimic the look and feel of natural light, giving you a similar experience to sitting outside in a sunny area. When these beams of light hit the retina, they transform into nerve impulses that target emotional regulation.
Available to those with a clinical diagnosis of SAD as well as those who simply dislike winter and want a little extra sun, light therapy is highly beneficial for those in need. Treatment generally involves 20 to 60 minutes of use on a daily basis.
Exercise has significant ties to mood. Those who exercise vigorously are 25 percent less likely to develop depression of any kind, indicating clear links between physical activity and mental state. Exercise releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, that can markedly improve emotional responses. Exercise outdoors, in the light, can be even more beneficial.
If you’re not big on exercise or are unable to take up a habit like running, consider simply adding a walking routine to your day. A mile or two a few times a week can do wonders, helping you to build muscle and feel better while fighting back against side effects of SAD. If a gym membership is in your budget, some cardio, like the use of an elliptical machine, or participation in a group fitness class may also inspire positive progress.
Many people are hesitant to explore medication like antidepressants, especially those who think SAD isn’t a big deal or will go away in time. However, for some people, medication can be an extremely effective way to address mental health struggles of all kinds, including the side effects related to seasonal changes in mood.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are commonly prescribed for various different kinds of depression and can mitigate the consequences of SAD. Bupropion, sold under the trade names Wellbutrin and Budeprion, is among the most commonly used medications for its ability to boost brain levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, dramatically increasing mood in many users.
For SAD, doctors often recommend beginning a dose of the extended-release formula in the fall, before winter sets in. However, medication is not one-size-fits-all, so speaking with a doctor can help you determine whether this is a good alternative for your health.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, often known as CBT, is an efficacious form of therapy used in a wide variety of circumstances, including addressing drug addiction and depression. The objective of CBT is to modify behaviors, emotions, and thoughts that are determined to be dysfunctional. Instead of simply talking about problems, CBT attempts to rectify a view of the world that may have been distorted through life events.
In CBT, patients with SAD are helped to realize that depression is not a choice or a deficit; it’s an innate part of self. Through the behavioral elements of CBT, participants can learn to focus negative energy through enjoyable activities like spending time with friends or reading a favorite book. Therapy can provide relief on a standalone basis or in conjunction with other forms of treatment.
Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Yes, junk food and alcohol may feel good in the moment, but long-term, they’re not wise choices for managing the symptoms of depression. Instead, it’s best to make choices are as health-conscious as possible.
If you’re struggling with side effects of a condition like SAD, it’s important to make good choices for your health to improve how you feel both mentally and physically. This means things like eating a healthy diet low in sugar, cutting out caffeine and alcohol as much as possible and abstaining from drug use. Keep blood pressure and heart rate low, and consider taking up activities like yoga or meditation to promote a reduction in stress.
A good night’s sleep can be important as well; go to bed at a reasonable time and attempt to get at least seven to eight hours each night. Increased fatigue can be common in depression of all kinds, but too much sleep is similarly discouraged, so try to keep to a normal routine as much as possible.
Dealing with seasonal affective disorder isn’t necessarily easy, but it is a treatable condition. By understanding your symptoms and realizing that depression of any kind is not a weakness or a flaw, it’s possible to find enjoyment and happiness in the changing of the seasons, no matter how frightful the weather may be.