Even though there are many areas of the country that don’t experience the full extent of all four seasons, such as the Southwest and southern Florida, there is no escaping the fact that days are much shorter in December and January than they are in July and August. With that, one does not have to experience leaves changing colors and temperatures plummeting to experience the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
According to Nicole Miele, adjunct professor within the Young School of Nursing at Regis College, “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during the fall and winter months and is more than just the winter blues.”
Miele states that she tends to see the months of January and February as more challenging for most patients, but occasionally sees symptoms start as early as late August.
This disorder should not be brushed off as a normal case of a winter funk. If you’re feeling lazy, worthless, sad, or a combination of the three, it’s important to seek treatment. There many things you can do to cope with seasonal depression.
Dr. Anita Thomas, Executive Vice President and Provost at St. Catherine University, stated that “there are a number of factors that lead to SAD. The lack of sunlight and exposure to Vitamin D is one cause. Changes in the season can shift circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, and lower serotonin levels which help positive moods. In some cases, it can be hereditary, and in others, mild depressive symptoms become exacerbated by the changing seasons.”
Identifying the Issue
SAD can affect people at any age, and adults and children with anxiety are most susceptible. This is a disorder that can affect anyone, and it is often hidden from plain view. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms, it’s important to act rather than wait for the seasons to change. Stress can take years off of your life, after all.
Here is a list of symptoms for SAD from the Mayo Clinic:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy
- Having problems sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Building a stronger mind builds a stronger body, and vice versa. SAD affects both the physical and mental aspects of health, so increasing the mind-body connection is a great way to help curb your symptoms at home. Meditation is a great practice for coping with anxiety and depression, and music and art therapy are also easy at-home additions that can help.
Light therapy is another process to help make the brain think the days are longer. Exposing yourself to a bright light for a good amount of time each day can work hand-in-hand with these other activities. Do note that light box therapy should be ok’d by a doctor first.
Dr. Tonya Cross-Hansel, an Associate Professor with the Tulane University School of Social Work, told Scrubs that “If any of the above symptoms resonate or you begin to question whether you are experiencing depression or anxiety, the first step is to reach out to a mental health professional. If you do not regularly see a therapist or are in an area with limited access, a call to a hotline is also a good start.”
The most important thing is to seek help. An entire season can be very disruptive and problematic, lasting upwards of half the year. Symptoms are also likely to worsen over time; it may start out as general malaise and deepen into a critical state that can eventually include suicide ideation. There are many different treatment options that can be discussed with your mental health professional including light therapy, vitamin D supplements, and talk therapy.
COVID and SAD
“There is an inherent connection between depression (feeling sad or down) and anxiety (worried or fearful),” states Dr. Hansel. “With all of the increased stressors and social isolation that 2020 has brought, those prone to SAD may see symptoms worsen.”
It is without doubt that this is a challenging time for us all, but please check out the list of helpful tips outlined by Professor Miele below:
- Maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle. Practice good sleep hygiene and try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. Limit naps to no more than 20 minutes per day.
- Do something you enjoy and get your body moving.
- Get some sunshine. If it is cold out, bundle up and go outside for a brisk walk or hike in the woods. Research has shown spending up to 2 hours in nature can improve mood.
- Talk to a mental health or medical professional about light therapy.
- Eat a well-balanced diet and limit the highly processed, sugary foods we tend to crave this time of year.
- Limit alcohol use. Alcohol is a depressant and will only exacerbate symptoms of depression.
- Safely socialize, and plan a Zoom get-together or movie night with friends or family.
- Practice mindfulness or meditation.
- Reach out to a mental health professional. Many providers are currently offering telehealth visits.
SAD is not something that should just “be tolerated” each year when daylight hours are shortened. It’s critical that anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder get professional help in order to prevent more critical states of mind from developing. This is one disorder that can be less disruptive and impactful when steps are taken to counteract the symptoms that can quickly worsen with the changing seasons.