It’s that time of year when we hear a lot about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes called the ‘winter blues’. But what exactly is it, and how does it differ from regular depression? Although it’s not in the name, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. It’s experienced during certain seasons of the year, particularly in dark, cold, and rainy weather conditions – though some people’s SAD can be triggered in the summer months too. Some of the fall/winter SAD symptoms include:
- Low mood
- Sleeping more than normal
- Eating more than normal, particularly carbs
- A loss of interest in the things you used to love
- A desire to isolate yourself or ‘hibernate’
- Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
If you’re experiencing SAD during the spring and summer, the symptoms might include:
- Sleeping less than normal (insomnia)
- Eating less than normal
- Agitation or anxiety
Because SAD is a type of depression, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of symptoms. The main distinguishing feature of SAD is that the depressive episodes are triggered specifically under certain weather conditions and or seasonal changes. If you’re someone who doesn’t experience depression throughout the year, it’ll be much easier to pinpoint that you’re experiencing SAD if you notice sudden changes in mood, energy levels, sleep, etc. as mentioned above. However, it can become tricky if you experience major depressive disorder (MDD) which can occur at any time of the year and may just so happen to occur during the winter. If you are indeed experiencing SAD, the seasonal depressive episodes might significantly outweigh the non-seasonal episodes. For example, SAD episodes are likely to be more consistent and prolonged (4-5 months) than regular depressive episodes you’ve experienced at other times of the year.
Therefore, it’s really important to speak to a professional if you’re experiencing the symptoms listed above and get immediate help if you start to have distressing thoughts. It’s also very helpful to stay in tune with where your mental health is at throughout the year. Try to understand what triggers you and if seasonal changes might be one of them. Tracking your moods and behaviors throughout the year and over multiple years will help you identify if you are experiencing SAD, as one of the criteria is that the depressive episodes occur during specific seasons for at least 2 consecutive years. However, there’s no need to wait the 2 years to see if there’s a pattern. Whether it’s the seasons changing or something emotional going, it’s ok to ask for help at any time.
What are the causes of SAD?
There is varied research on SAD, and the full extent of what causes it is not yet known. Scientists have however identified certain factors that are believed to contribute to SAD. These include:
- Serotonin levels. Reduced sunlight in the fall and winter months are thought to cause a drop in the hormone serotonin. Serotonin is the main hormone that regulates our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.
- Melatonin levels. Research suggests that people with SAD produce too much melatonin during the winter. Melatonin is a hormone which is produced when it’s dark to help our body get ready for sleep. Because we’re exposed to more darkness in the winter, this can then cause sleepiness and low energy levels throughout the day.
- Disrupted body clock. Our body clock works to a certain rhythm to make sure that our internal functions and processes such as mood, sleep and energy levels are optimized over a 24-hour period. Light is the most powerful influence on this rhythm, so when it’s reduced it can slow the body clock down, leading to lethargy and depression.
- Holiday stress can also explain changes in your mood and behaviors at certain times of the year. Winter is associated with the holiday season, which can bring up many issues like upsetting childhood memories, money worries, housing problems and loneliness. While these things can certainly trigger a depressive episode, the holidays aren’t necessarily a ‘cause’ of SAD.
How can you treat SAD?
If you do experience SAD and it only affects you a few months out of the year, you might be tempted to just persevere and endure what can be very debilitating symptoms. But you deserve to have a fulfilling and enjoyable life throughout the year. Struggling through the symptoms of SAD every year without seeking professional help and developing coping skills can be dangerous and life-threatening. The good news is SAD can be treated successfully and in many of the same ways as regular depression. These include:
- Talk therapy. There are different types of talk therapy which will help you address your depressive thoughts and feelings, as well as looking into how your brain functions and why.
- Psychotherapy or counselling will help you to look at how you feel about yourself and the world around you, as well as digging deeper into your past to explore how it’s affecting you today
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is geared towards unlearning unhelpful thinking patters and taking a more positive approach to problem solving
- Medication. Many people take antidepressants right before a seasonal change and discontinue afterwards. For instance, taking it at the end of summer right through to early spring. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used antidepressant used to treat SAD. They work to increase the serotonin in your brain, which as we mentioned earlier, is key to regulating your mood and increasing well-being.
- Light therapy. This is a specific treatment for SAD and it involves increasing exposure to bright lights to compensate for the lack of natural daylight during the fall and winter months. This is done by sitting in front of a bright light box first thing in the morning for 30-45 minutes. The light emitted from the light box mimics natural daylight and can cause your brain to reduce melatonin production (the sleepy hormone) and increase serotonin (the happy hormone).
- Self care. There are lots of things you can do to help yourself cope with SAD and regular depression. Here are some tips:
- The ‘good’ thing about SAD is you know when to expect it. That means you can plan ahead for the months you’re likely to not feel your best. Make batches of food to freeze, avoid scheduling stressful activities during this period where possible, give your friends and family a heads up that you might need extra support from them
- Get out into nature. Whether it’s hiking, walking or cycling; soak up the natural daylight whilst also getting the healing benefits of being in green space.
- Staying hydrated and eating nutritious meals throughout the day will help you to keep your blood sugar stable, which is known to regulate mood and energy levels.
- Journaling your thoughts and feelings is a great outlet as well as a good record keeping exercise. You’ll be able to recognize what’s triggering your moods and start to pick up on patterns over time. It’s also helpful to keep note of things that make you feel better, so you can read it back to remind yourself of the positives.