The winter season is typically associated with holidays and joy, giving us various things to look forward to. However, the cold months and decrease in sunlight can lead to Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as seasonal depression. January and February are the most difficult months for most Americans. This shift in mood can affect how we think, feel, and handle daily activities. So what exactly is contributing to this feeling?
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to the changing of seasons. The mood changes occur around the same time every year. Symptoms typically begin in the fall and will continue throughout the winter. In some cases symptoms begin in the spring and summer months, though it is less common.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms most commonly include:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Low energy
- Problems sleeping
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Feeling sluggish or irritable
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
There is no exact cause of SAD but there are several factors that come into play, including chemical production and less exposure to sunlight.
Melatonin and serotonin
Some people have a decrease in serotonin levels during the winter months. This plays a large role in feelings of depression because serotonin helps to regulate our moods. Similarly, our brains produce more melatonin in the winter months due to longer periods of darkness. Disrupted melatonin levels can impact our sleep routines, resulting in changing moods.
Both serotonin and melatonin help to maintain our internal clock and are tied to our cycles of night and day. Aside from shorter days being inconvenient, changes in those levels can upset that cycle and create difficulties biologically.
Less sun exposure may also be a factor. Exposure to sunlight leads to Vitamin D production. A decrease in production is directly linked to depression, SAD, and other mental illnesses.
Who is affected?
Anyone can be affected, but people aged 18-30, especially women, tend to experience SAD more commonly. In addition, those living farther north are more susceptible because there is typically less daylight in the winter months.
Those who struggle with existing disorders, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorders, ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety disorders or panic disorders are more likely to experience SAD as well.
It’s not clear if negative feelings about the winter months and the limitations and stressors associated with it are the “causes” or “effects” of SAD. However, they are useful in how it is treated.
Exposure to bright light every day by use of a light box for 30-45 minutes, usually right away in the morning. These light boxes are about 20 times brighter than ordinary indoor lights.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that is aimed at helping individuals learn how to cope with difficult situations. Part of this therapy also encompasses behavioral activation. Behavioral activation is helping those who struggle with SAD to identify and schedule pleasant, engaging indoor or outdoor activities.
SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may be helpful. Serotonin carries messages to our brain and then it is reabsorbed by the nerve cell. This type of medication blocks that reabsorption, or reuptake, meaning that more serotonin is available to pass more messages between nerve cells.
Adding a nutritional supplement or consuming foods that are high in Vitamin D may help improve symptoms.
Of course, the best treatment may be to move to a warm, sunny, tropical island. 😉
It is absolutely normal to have days when you feel down and not excited about what lies ahead, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic looming over all of us. However, if this feeling lasts for days at a time it may be time to reach out for help. You are not alone and the frustrations you have are valid. Call and schedule today if you need some help coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
If you are having thoughts of suicide please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741).