Seasonal Affective Disorder

As we continue to slog through the winter, you might notice feeling a little more sleepy than you usually do. Maybe you’re a little moody; perhaps you’ve noticed that your appetite has changed and that you’ve gained weight as a result. These symptoms, which are frequently and typically associated with depression, may actually be winter-onset seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. SAD usually begins to appear in late fall or early winter, and tends to get better once the sun is out more and the weather gets warmer in the spring. Although the actual cause of SAD is unknown, there are several theories that are floated around as to why this occurs in so many people (approximately 10 million Americans).

In elementary school, you learned that winter happens when the axis of the earth where you live points away from the sun, leading to fewer hours of daylight and colder temperatures. Having less sunlight interferes with the body’s internal clock (the circadian rhythm), which regulates when we are awake and asleep. When the sun rises later in the morning, it is harder to wake up, making you feel groggy and sleepy. When the sun sets earlier in the evening, the body’s natural inclination is to go to sleep, but we fight it, staying up as late as we always do, thus continuing to disrupt our bodies’ natural rhythms. Less sunlight can also trigger a drop in the serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts mood, and a decrease of this neurotransmitter may lead to depression-like symptoms (you may have heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which is a medication that may be taken by those who are suffering with depression).

There are certain biological and environmental factors that play a role in the likelihood of a person being affected by SAD. Being female and young increases the risk of a diagnosis of SAD, as well as a family history of SAD or other forms of depression. If you yourself have been diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder, these symptoms can worsen during winter months. As well, living far from the equator increases the chance of being diagnosed with SAD, since living further from the equator means more fluctuation in the seasons.

The most well-known treatment for SAD is the light therapy box, which can be used several times a day to imitate the effects of the sun’s light. Research on the effectiveness of the light box is limited, but many people suffering with SAD find it to be beneficial. If your symptoms are severe, you might want to look into the possibility of an antidepressant or light box treatment regimen, and you should speak with your doctor about those options.

But what can you do at home without a light box or medication? Engage in some cognitive-behavioral therapy skills. You can start by recognizing and challenging the distorted thoughts that you’re having. For example, on a particularly dreary day, you might look outside and think “This winter is never going to end.” Challenge yourself: Is this really true? How long does winter actually last? Remind yourself how many days there are until spring.

Provide yourself with opportunities to look forward to events. Schedule an evening out or a weekend getaway (or a longer trip to an exotic location with palm trees and drinks served in coconut shells with tiny umbrellas). Snuggle up with a good book, comfy socks, and a cup of tea before bed each night. Do a visualization of something that makes you happy that you do in the summer – maybe it’s that trip to the beach or playing in the pool with your kids, or maybe it’s just having the windows open and feeling the warm breeze on your face while you’re driving. Try doing something different and new to keep your attention sharp: make that recipe that you keep thinking about or take your regular walk in a different neighborhood.

Look for positives of each day. We tend to focus on negative aspects of our days, even though those things might have only accounted for 1% (or less) of our day. If this concept seems difficult to fathom, think about this: you wouldn’t throw away an entire apple because of one small blemish.

Remember to see the sun! How many of us are stuck in an office all day, only seeing the light of day and getting fresh air on our way to and from work (and sometimes not even then!)? On your lunch break, or even on a trip to the restroom, take a quick jaunt outside. A 5-minute walk is better than no walk, and you’ll be amazed how much better you’ll feel after just those few minutes.

What sorts of things do you do to help you manage the symptoms of your SAD?

To learn more about seasonal affective disorder, please visit:

Mayo Clinic

Mental Health America

Psychology Today