As the colder seasons start, many people experience certain shifts in their emotions that lead to behavioral changes.
If you’re noticing that you have difficulties waking up that only seem to be an issue for you in the cold and dark months of the year, having sudden cravings for carbohydrates or comfort food, and experiencing general discomfort or seemingly inexplicable feelings of sadness, you might be suffering from the Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD).
In this article, we want to talk about this condition and its onset, characteristics, and symptoms in order to help you deal with it better. We’ll also share some tips on how to ease and eventually avoid being struck by the “winter blues”.
What is the Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern. While most people do experience slight changes in their mood and behavior when the seasons change, for some this is actually a problem on a much larger scale.
More than 3% of the American population have SAD. This may not sound like a lot, but let’s just be aware that it’s actually more than 10 million people. To put this into perspective, the number of people in the USA with diagnosed depression is 5.8% or, expressed in numbers, 19.4 million people.
According to research conducted in the UK, every third person suffers from a certain form of SAD, but 29% experience severe symptoms, while the rest are on a rather mild spectrum. In Canada and Scandinavia, the prevalence of this problem is significantly higher, just like in the UK, while those living in Mediterranean and equatorial countries aren’t affected as much. The reason for this is that geographical location plays a major role in developing SAD. The further you are from the equator, the more susceptible you are.
And while we’re at cracking numbers, let’s stop for a second and acknowledge that we’re only talking about registered cases. As usual, the reality is much more complex, as many people fail to recognize that the seasonal changes in their mood, emotions, and behavior are a sign of depression that can be treated.
The seasonal affective disorder is not an isolated case. It’s also a common occurrence for people not to recognize when their suffering has crossed a certain threshold and moved from frequent bad moods to actual depression.
What are the symptoms of the Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- Depression that begins and ends during a specific season of the year;
- Sad mood, low energy;
- Sudden loss of interest in the activities one usually enjoys;
- Changes in weight. In case of weight loss, the common symptom is loss of appetite, while in cases of weight gain, a craving for carbohydrates is often observed;
- Changes/disruption of sleeping cycles;
- Feeling of worthlessness.
There are many underlying factors that influence the development of this disorder, with major depression, psychological factors, personality, and upbringing being almost as important as biological predisposition. But with SAD, it seems that biology is the dominant factor, which is actually a quite optimistic perspective, as this means that the healing process is much more straightforward.
Some of the most common biological factors in the development of SAD are:
- Difficulties in serotonin regulation;
- Melatonin overproduction;
- Lack of vitamin D.
For those of you who are biology/medicine savvies, you know that seeing these three together can only mean one thing: lack of sun exposure and disruption in circadian rhythms.
Now it probably makes much more sense why people from Canada and the UK are much more likely to develop SAD than those living in Southern Italy, right? Now that we’ve got the theory around SAD out of the way, let’s discuss the actionable part.
How to ease and avoid SAD symptoms?
When we say that biology is a major factor in SAD, we don’t necessarily mean that medication will solve your problem. On the contrary, in this case, it actually means that there is so much you can do in terms of changing your habits and behavior to prevent an onset of SAD.
Predict and prevent
Let’s go back to school for a bit. How far away from the equator do you live? How many seasons do you observe in your state/country? How many sunny days on average do you experience in your place of living?
If you live further from the equator and enjoy fewer sunny days than those lucky people living in, let’s say, the Caribbean, that’s reason enough to start thinking about preventative measures. Also, if you observe the full four seasons in the place where you live, this gives you a clear advantage, as it allows you to easily predict when your mood and energy levels might start flunking.
The first-in-line therapeutic practice for SAD is bright light therapy. The reason for this is that in most cases, SAD is closely related to vitamin D deficiency and melatonin over-production, which leads to disrupted sleep and eating patterns (circadian rhythm), which, in turn, have a negative influence on your mood and energy.
Bright light therapy was developed during the 20th century for healing vitamin D deficiencies (especially in children) in countries where this was most commonly observed. Over time, doctors and researchers have realized that light also plays a role in our serotonin levels and melatonin production. The method is still in use today for healing a variety of disorders, from ADHD to major depression and eating disorders.
And there is more good news: today you can actually purchase a therapy lamp for convenient at-home treatment. The treatment is most effective if you spend 30 minutes each morning sitting next to this lamp.
Another form of treatment that involves this lamp is combining occupational therapy with light therapy. This may sound fancy, but it actually means doing something that occupies your time (knitting, drawing, coloring, sewing, etc.) while sitting by the lamp. So far, research has revealed that the therapy lamp outperforms medicament therapy on many levels, and, unlike medicament therapy, light therapy can not harm you in any way.
If you’re uncertain about self-therapy with this lamp, you can fill out this survey developed by The Center for Environmental Therapeutics, designed to help you figure out the best time in the day to use the lamp. If you need more help when deciding on what lamp to buy for SAD or other affective issues where this therapeutic method applies, you can find the 6 best lightbox models listed on the page of the Yale School of Medicine.
If you think about it, habits and routines are the basic organizers of our behavior. What we do during the day are just clusters of behaviors organized into consistent and repetitive habits. The time in which we eat, sleep, work, or socialize and how we do all these things is all a matter of habits which we can learn, unlearn, or relearn.
If you suspect that you could be susceptible to SAD, you can help yourself and improve your condition with a few simple habit––and lifestyle––changes. Here are some of our suggestions.
Spend more time outside
Even if it’s not sunny outside (and especially if it is), make sure to spend some time outside enjoying daylight and fresh air each day. During spring and summer, it seems like an essential thing to do, but once the cold season begins, we tend to enjoy the comfort of our warm homes more than usual.
Create or rearrange your schedule in a way that every day you spend at least one hour outside, during the daytime. Daylight, especially if it’s sunny outside, helps our body synthesize healthy levels of vitamin D. Although many people think that they will resolve the problem with SAD by simply taking vitamin D supplements, that’s usually not enough.
Walk at least 30 minutes
While you’re outside, we strongly recommend choosing a local park instead of the city environment. In his book about SAD, the famous psychiatrist Norman Rosental recommends at least 30 minutes of active walking each day. The fresh air, physical activity, and calmness of a natural environment help us regulate our serotonin levels and establish a better sleeping pattern. Find a podcast you want to listen to on the go, choose music that lifts your spirit, or simply stay with your thoughts while you are taking a walk.
Spend time Doing what you love with those who you love
People you love, places that make you feel calm, activities that make you laugh––all these things contribute to your personal index of happiness. Nature time, recreation, hobbies, but also spending time with your friends and family doing things you love (like playing board games, having dinner parties, or movie nights) can help you feel more alive.
Our serotonin craves human contact and urges us to build meaningful social connections. This is why spending time with people we love has a healing effect and can alleviate depression symptoms.
When depressive symptoms emerge, human beings tend to withdraw and distance themselves from the outside world. It can sometimes take real effort to spend 10 minutes in meaningful contact with another person, but those 10 minutes can be a real game-changer.
Outdoor and indoor activities that involve other people, laughter, fun, and coziness are natural remedies for the winter blues.
Design your happy place
What makes a house a home? Whatever builds your happiness, gratitude and inner peace. Your home should serve as a safe space for you to dream, recharge, and feel 100% free to be your authentic self. Transforming your space into a sanctuary of gratitude is not that hard of a job, although it does require an open mind and a bit of time and dedication. Here’s a detailed guide on how to create an atmosphere of gratitude at your home.
Gratitude journaling is something that can help you boost your mood throughout the year, and it only takes five minutes. Those few minutes will take you a long way, as starting the day by jotting down things that you are grateful for will put you in a positive, abundant state of mind.
When you write down the highlights of your day every evening, it will provide you with a whole new appreciation for your own life and the blessings you might have overlooked in the past. At first, it may be difficult, but once you build a gratitude journaling habit, it will help you keep a perspective on what's truly important.
Mental health is a delicate matter for all of us, but it’s important that we talk about it, because there is so much we can do for ourselves with simple behavioral and habit changes that can help us become stronger, healthier, and more resilient.
With SAD, it’s not easy, because many people aren’t even aware that there is such a thing as a seasonal mental health problem. But it’s important to acknowledge that SAD is real and that it can happen to anyone. And, although investing personal effort into making yourself feel better is always encouraged, we strongly recommend that you talk to a professional if you feel like your emotional struggles are getting out of hand.