It’s that time of year again. When people start to you know….. Feel SAD. As the seasons change so does our mood. But is it just a case of winter blues?? Nahh it’s a little bit more complex than that. When people start and stop feeling depressed yearly as the seasons change that may be an indicator of Seasonal Affective Disorder. So that leaves the question of what exactly is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is pretty similar to major depressive disorder. The only difference between the two is that depressive symptoms are only present during the change of seasons. So basically as the seasons change so does our mood. Most people experience SAD during the cold months as oppose to the warmer months. But don’t get me wrong, there are some people that experience it during the warmer months as well. So what does it look like?
Sleeping the day away. Individuals that live with SAD tend to oversleep. Despite gettings an ample amount of sleep, these individuals wake up feeling fatigued and have little to no energy throughout the day. There is also a change in an individual's appetite which can contribute to weight gain during these times. These individuals may also appear to be hypersensitive/ irritable during this time as well. These symptoms can make a person limit their social interactions. Low energy levels and lack of concentration can lead to issues at work and or school. An influx in substance use, eating disorders, and anxiety have been associated with SAD as well.Because of the depressive symptoms associated with SAD, there is also an increase in Suicidal ideation. These symptoms tend to start out mild and intensify as the season progresses.
What causes SAD?
There are currently 3 potential causes of SAD. One of which is changes in circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is our bodies natural clock. Which is responsible for our sleep-wake cycle. In the winter months, it’s dark when we go to work, it’s dark when we leave work, and a lot of individuals prefer to stay inside and keep warm during the colder months. This lack of sunlight throws off our rhythm which then affects our sleep cycle.
Another potential cause is a decrease in serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter/natural chemical in our brain that is responsible for stabilizing our mood and well-being. Which contributes to our happiness. When we aren’t getting enough sunlight our serotonin levels decrease which then negatively impacts our mood.
The third potential cause of SAD is decreased levels of Melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone in our bodies that helps us go to and stay asleep. So again playing a role in our sleep cycle. Because we aren’t receiving enough sunlight in the cold months our melatonin levels decrease.
So what can someone with SAD do to feel better?
There are a few ways to treat seasonal affective disorder. One way is through therapy. When you talk to a licensed professional you both work together to develop a treatment plan. During that time your therapist/counselor will help you to identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors associated with SAD. They will also assist you in learning healthy ways to cope and manage stress associated with it as well.
Another treatment option is Light therapy.
Light therapy assists in changing the chemicals in our brains that are linked to our mood. (Like the serotonin that we talked about earlier.) So how does it work?? You are exposed to bright light within the first hour of waking up every day. It's important to note that this isn't the typical light that you are being exposed to so it's best to consult with your therapist/ PCP to make sure that you are getting the best quality, features, and options available.
Other ways to cope
Relaxation techniques such as yoga meditation, guided imagery, music/art therapy and assist with decreasing the symptoms associated with SAD.
SAD impacts both women and men, studies show it is more prevalent in women. It also impacts younger individuals at a higher rate than older adults.
Sunlight plays a huge role in our mental and physical health. As we move into these colder months remember to try to get as much daylight as possible to decrease the chances and impact of feeling SAD.