When daylight decreases and temperatures drop during the winter, routines and behaviors often change along with them. One change that is fairly common during this time of year in terms of mental health is often called the “winter blues”. However, for some, their condition is better understood and treated as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is also commonly called “winter depression”. SAD is a type of depression linked to changing seasons, and may be mild to severe in scope. Most who have SAD experience it during winter, though there are rare cases in which people struggle with it during spring and summer.
The signs of SAD are much the same as mild cases of depression. These may include:
- Low energy, low motivation and lethargic behavior
- Problems with getting to sleep or oversleeping
- Losing interest in normally engaging activities
- Feeling depressed during the majority of the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in food behaviors and appetites, such as overeating, weight gain and unhealthy cravings
It’s important to remember that everyone who has SAD experiences it differently, and some cases may be more severe than others.
Causes and Risk Factors
There is no definite cause of SAD. However, it is linked to biochemical imbalances in the brain often related to a changing environment. Therefore, there are several possible factors that may contribute. Some of these are:
- Irregularities in serotonin management within the body. Serotonin is a mood-affecting neurotransmitter, or brain regulating chemical.
- Melatonin overproduction. Melatonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, and having too much of it may result in lethargic, sleepy and distracted behavior.
- Lack of Vitamin D. Vitamin D also helps with serotonin regulation and is usually obtained through exposure to light, particularly sunlight. Since natural light patterns change dramatically during the winter, this may play a part in developing a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Some people are also more at risk of developing SAD than others. Some of these factors are:
- Being a female: Women are four times more likely to be affected by SAD than men.
- Family history: If other members of your family have SAD or other affective mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar, you may be more likely to have SAD.
- Being young: SAD usually begins to show up between the ages of 18 and 30, and many people who have it start showing symptoms at a young age.
- Living far above or below the equator: The greater distance away from the equator you live, the more the sun’s patterns change in the winter. Since SAD is usually linked to the changing amount of sunlight in cold months, you’ll be more likely to develop SAD if you live in an area that doesn’t get much sun in the winter.
Fortunately, there are many options for overcoming SAD. Some treatments include:
- Light therapy: Since SAD is linked to inadequate light exposure, doctors will often recommend getting a light therapy box for your home. These pieces of equipment create bright light (without harmful UV rays) to stimulate your brain in the way that the sun usually does during brighter and warmer seasons.
- Going outside: Though in the winter months the weather is often cold, dry and harsh, one treatment option is to get outdoors more often. Winter often finds many people retreating indoors, where activity levels and exposure to the natural environment drop. Such habits only increase SAD symptoms. Getting outside and exposing your eyes and brain to what sunlight there is during winter, along with maintaining regular exercise patterns, can work wonders.
- Psychotherapy: Mental health conditions are often treated through the use of a personal counselor. SAD can benefit from the same. Having a trusted person to whom you can talk about your emotional well-being is a well-established treatment option. You can also discuss possible options for taking action to overcome your SAD. Psychotherapy will give you an opportunity to express yourself and prevent your mental wellness in check.
- Medicine and supplements: Depending on the severity of a case of Seasonal Affective Disorder, a physician or counselor may recommend medication to better regulate your biochemical patterns. Taking Vitamin D supplements can also help.
- Practicing wellness habits and activities: Wintertime can often be a stressful time for many, and self-care activities can easily fall by the wayside. Being intentional and active in staying mentally and emotionally healthy through activities such as exercise, journaling, meditating, deep breathing and others can help a lot with keeping symptoms of SAD at bay.
If you think you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, please don’t hesitate to reach out to others for help. Connection with loved ones is vitally important for well-being. And if you know someone who struggles with SAD or any other kind of mental health condition, take the initiative and reach out to them first. If your symptoms become difficult to manage, talk to your regular physician. We are here to help you at Community Access Network, and we take walk-in appointments. Contact us today!