Seasonal depression, also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is “a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer,” as per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately five percent of U.S. adults experience SAD. A total of 10 to 20 percent of Americans are suffering from a milder form, often called “winter blues,” as reported by Psychology Today.
Although I haven’t been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, I experienced a rather severe case of the more mild “winter blues” last year. It was my first winter back home in Chicago, and I definitely felt the difference coming back to the winters I grew up with compared to the relatively balmy and sunny Missouri winters I had experienced the last four years while in college. The days are short, the sunlight is at a bare minimum, and the temperatures are frigid, making my lack of desire to go outside reach an all-time high.
When it’s dark by the time you’re leaving work for the day, it can get much harder to find the motivation to keep up with a regular weekday routine and normally joyful hobbies. My friends and I have already begun to discuss fun activities to get us through the season. Going into this year’s winter, I decided to do my research and prepare myself for coping with the dwindling daylight hours and overall lack of sunshine.
What to know about seasonal affective disorder
Shorter days and less sunlight affect the brain’s chemical balance
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD is connected to a biochemical imbalance that occurs in the brain due to shorter daytime hours and less sunlight. This can cause a circadian rhythm shift during the change in seasons. As a result of this, SAD is more common in people who live further from the equator because of the even shorter hours of daylight.
The NIMH also noted that people with seasonal affective disorder might struggle with regulating serotonin, which directly affects your mood, and may also produce too much melatonin and too little Vitamin D. SAD can also occur — but is much less common — during the summer season.
It’s more common in women, young adults, and people with major depression and/or bipolar disorder
A study published in Depression Research and Treatment noted that women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD and it typically occurs in those between 18 to 30 years old. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of depression might be worse during the winter months if you have been previously diagnosed with major depression or bipolar disorder.
How to tell if you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder
The NIMH explained that SAD is not a separate disorder, but a type of depression displaying a seasonal pattern — with many of the same symptoms. Some common symptoms of major depression include feeling hopeless or worthless, losing interest in activities you’ve liked in the past, appetite or weight fluctuations, and struggles with concentration.
Symptoms of the Winter Pattern of SAD, per NIMH, specifically include:
- Having low energy
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Tools & tips for getting through it
This list is compiled from information provided by National Institute of Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association, and Mayo Clinic. In some cases, prescription medication can be an effective treatment. Always talk to your doctor first about the most beneficial course of action for you. Here are a few tools that have been proven to help those affected by seasonal affective disorder or winter blues:
Light therapy aims to substitute artificial light for the lack of sunshine during the fall and winter months by sitting in front of a light box first thing in the morning on a daily basis to relieve symptoms of SAD, as per NIMH. Research has shown light therapy to be one of the most effective treatments for SAD, according to Mayo Clinic, and is often the first line of treatment recommended by doctors. Be sure to discuss the best light box for you with your doctor before purchasing.
Mind-body connection tactics can help with SAD, as Mayo Clinic noted. This includes activities like yoga and tai chi, meditation, guided visualizations, and art or music therapy. Check out your local yoga studios, rec centers, and community calendars for classes you can attend, or talk to your doctor or therapist for recommendations. You can try tools like Class Pass, Groupon, or free trials to figure out what works best for you! There are also tons of resources and free at-home practices available online.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a type of psychotherapy or talk therapy, has been adapted and used as a treatment for SAD. The NIMH stated that CBT-SAD uses basic techniques of psychotherapy like replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and identifying activities that are enjoyable, which is called behavioral activation. This can be especially helpful for people experiencing SAD to be able to identify activities that may help them cope with winter.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise and physical activity have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, therefore, it may also help with symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. It’s also important to make taking care of yourself in general a priority — by getting the right amount of sleep, staying active, and eating a well-balanced diet.
Brighten your environment
Because one of the causes of SAD is decreased exposure to natural light, anything you can do to brighten your home and work environments might help, as per the American Psychiatric Association. You can achieve this by keeping the blinds open, making sure nothing is in the way of your windows, adding plants, greenery, and extra lighting, and even rearranging your home or office so that you sit near the window.
Get outside more
For the same reasons you should brighten your indoor environments, it also can help to get outside as often as possible. You can bundle up, brave the cold, and take a walk, or just sit outside for a while to soak up the sunshine. According to Mayo Clinic, any type of outdoor light (even if it’s cloudy or cold) may help, especially when it’s experienced within the first few hours of waking up. It also helps to just get out of the house and spend time with friends and family, find purpose in volunteering, or even take a short trip to a sunnier location if you can.
Vitamin D supplementation
While people with SAD have shown low levels of Vitamin D in their blood (which can result from low exposure to sunlight), there are mixed reviews on whether or not Vitamin D supplementation is an effective treatment for SAD. However, some studies have shown it to be. You should always discuss with your doctor whether or not Vitamin D supplementation would be the right treatment for you before trying it out for yourself.
Although this list is meant to help those of us experiencing seasonal depression or winter blues, I am not a medical professional and this is not a comprehensive list. If you think you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, it’s important to reach out and get help. See your doctor, get in contact with a therapist, and/or talk to a close friend or family member.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, get help immediately.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Crisis Textline: text CONNECT to 741741