Don’t Let Seasonal Depression Get the Best of You This Winter
Winter is coming, and while everyone’s celebrating sweater weather, holiday candles, and pumpkin spice lattes, you may be less than enthused if you are prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). When Shakespeare penned the words, “Now is the winter of our discontent” for Richard III, he created an apt description for SAD sufferers. The disorder typically revs up with the onset of winter and lasts until spring. It can bring feelings of deep sadness and lethargy that make the months seem dark, dreary, and seemingly endless.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD (also known as major depressive disorder with season pattern or simply seasonal depression) affects about 5% of U.S. residents. Its symptoms can last for about 40 percent of the year, which can be a long time to be living under the dark cloud of misery that it can cause. In rare cases, the disorder can kick in during the summer months, but most cases are winter-specific.
Here’s a closer look at the illness and treatment options.
What Causes It?
Though winter is cold in many parts of the country, temperature has not proven to be a trigger for SAD. Rather, it has been linked to diminishing daylight hours. It’s believed that this lack of sunlight can contribute to SAD in the following ways:
- Decreased melatonin. As the days become shorter, your body produces more of a hormone known as melatonin. Melatonin regulates sleep cycle and mood, so when its production is disrupted, you’ll feel it on both counts.
- Increased serotonin. Just as shorter days increase your melatonin levels, they decrease your levels of a hormone known as serotonin. Serotonin is often referred to as the “happy hormone” because it makes you—well—happy! Less serotonin can contribute to the winter blues.
Who Gets It?
The vast majority of SAD sufferers are females between the ages of 15 and 55. In fact, studies show that women are four times more likely than men to have SAD. Geography plays a role, too. It’s said that people who live farther from the equator are more prone to SAD. People who have family histories of depression, including bipolar disorder, are also more likely to experience SAD.
So how do you know if you have SAD? Symptoms may include the following:
- Disruption in sleeping patterns (resulting in excessive fatigue and/or difficulty falling asleep)
- Consistent feelings of sadness
- Loss of interest in things that you usually enjoy
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- Suicidal ideations
- Decrease in sexual appetite
- Disruption to appetite (resulting in an increase or decrease in hunger/weight)
- Trouble concentrating
- Get outside. Sunlight is your friend, so if you have a chance to go outside and soak some up, you’ll be better off—even if it requires some bundling first.
- Open your curtains. The same applies to blinds. Your body craves light, and this is an easy way to let more light into your home.
- Exercise. Exercise should be a given in life as it is a major boost to overall health. Where mental wellness is concerned, exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety, make you feel stronger and more energetic, unclutter your mind so you think more clearly, and help you sleep better at night.
- Eat well. Along with exercise, eating right contributes to whole-body wellness, and energy levels.
- Socialize. Though winter blues may tempt us to withdraw from others, that’s the opposite of what we need. Getting together with good friends to laugh and relax can go a long way to elevate mood.
- Psychotherapy. Even though we’ve just told you that SAD is a result of a chemical reaction originating in the brain, psychotherapy can help you recognize what’s going on in your body and manage your resulting thoughts and actions constructively. If you suffer from SAD, look into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) through individual or group sessions. It doesn’t have the side effects of medications and can have a more lasting effect on your life than simply popping a pill.
- Medications. That said, some people need the strength of a prescription antidepressant to level out their brain chemistry. There are now FDA-approved medications designed especially to target SAD. Talk to your doctor to find out if medication is a good course for you.
- Phototherapy. For many people, getting more light in their life through a specialized lightbox can help get their body back on track. This usually involves sitting in front of the lightbox in the morning for 30 to 60 minutes per day. Just make sure to invest in a high-quality lightbox because they’re not all created equally, and you will probably get what you pay for.
Another option is a light visor, which some people claim is just as effective as a lightbox, but it saves you time. The visor can be worn on your head as you do things around your home rather than staring into a lightbox. Talk to your physician for more information.
Helping Others with SAD
Even if you’re not affected by SAD, you may know someone who is. You can be a big support to them during the winter months by interacting with them regularly. That might mean inviting them to go to lunch or to bundle up and take a walk outside together. Be mindful that if your friend or loved one is feeling blue, their initial response may be to push you away, but don’t get offended and continue to extend invitations for them to join you for outings.
You can also be a good listener. Allow them to share their experiences with SAD without passing judgment or downplaying their problems. Remind them that there are treatment options so they do not have to continue to suffer through the winter months. Encourage them to talk to a physician for help in dealing with their seasonal depression.