The 2023 Ultimate Guide to Seasonal Affective Disorder
What is Seasonal Affective disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a variation of depression that begins and ends around the same time each year. SAD typically occurs during the fall/winter months but less commonly occurs in the spring and summer. To be medically diagnosed, you must consistently experience depressive episodes around the same months for at least two years..
Signs of winter depression include feeling a surge of sadness, lack of energy, or thoughts of hopelessness around a specific time of year. This guide will help you understand seasonal affective disorder, explain its causes, offers tips for seasonal depression, and more.
Risk Factors of SAD
Like many mental disorders, there are a few risk factors for seasonal affective disorder. While these factors are not sole causes, they can play a significant role in one's chances of developing SAD.
- Being a woman: Women are diagnosed four times more than men
- Living in an area far from the equator: People in areas further from the equator (i.e., Seattle) are more often diagnosed with SAD than those closer (i.e.,, Florida)
- Family history: People with a family history of mental illnesses such as seasonal depression are more likely to develop SAD.
- Having preexisting depression or bipolar disorder: Those with these types of mental illness are more likely to feel SAD’s enhanced feelings during designated seasons.
- Younger age: Younger adults are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than older adults. This has been reported even in teens and kids.
Statistics and Facts About SAD
Luckily, we live in an age where extensive studies have been on SAD, such as what can influence it, who's more at risk, which months see more cases, and which areas are more at risk. Here are a few facts about SAD:
Jan and Feb are the month’s people with SAD struggle the most.
The further you go north in the US, the more common SAD is. For example, SAD is seven times more common in Washington State compared to Florida.
Roughly 5% of US adults experience SAD and say it lasts 40% of the year. That equates to 146 days or 4.8 months each year.
SAD can begin at any age but typically starts with those between 18 and 30; your chances of SAD go down as you age.
More than half a million people in the US suffer from SAD. 10-20% may suffer from a mild form of winter blues
¾ of those suffering from SAD are women.
Many people with SAD report having a close relative with a mental disorder such as severe depressive disorder (55 percent) or alcohol abuse (34 percent).
Five of the ten cities with the most depressing winters are located downwind from one of the great lakes. This causes sunlight to be a rarity in the winter.
Arizona, Florida, and Hawaii have been found to have the sunniest winters, making them easier for those with SAD.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder
SAD is often confused with the winter blues; however, both are different. Both are similar in symptoms, but SAD is more severe compared to the winter blues. With the winter blues, symptoms include drowsiness, feeling lethargic, and even a lack of motivation. Those with SAD do experience these symptoms and more.
Seasonal Affective Disorder could be considered to be a more intense form of winter blues. On top of winter blues symptoms, those with SAD experience a more significant mental decline, such as hopelessness and anxiety. As a result, other aspects, such as relationships and work, are impacted. Whereas the winter blues only affects one's energy and motivation.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
SAD Seasonal Affective Disorder not only affects one's mental well-being but their physical condition as well. It's essential to understand seasonal depression symptoms as well as seasonal affective disorder causes. Understanding these two aspects can better prepare you for handling this condition.
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
- Episodes of violent behavior
- Having low energy
- Having problems with sleep
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Poor appetite with associated weight loss
Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The common question is, "what causes seasonal depression?" SAD is in strong correlation with the changing of seasons. With these changes comes a variation in the average amount of physical activities and the amount of sunlight they receive. Both of these impact the chemical levels in one's brain that help regulate emotional levels.
Lack of Exposure to Sunlight
SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain linked to days where we receive less sunlight exposure. Sunlight plays a critical role in our mental well-being and regulates our sleep schedule, known as our circadian rhythm. A healthy sleep schedule is essential to having good mental health.
Imbalances of Serotonin, Melatonin, and Vitamin D
It turns out seasonal affective disorder and melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D levels are related. People with SAD have been found to have an imbalance of serotonin, a chemical in one's brain that affects mood. It's also been found that their bodies make too much melatonin, which regulates sleep. Thus, explaining why those with SAD sleep so much. They also do not produce enough vitamin D, which is essential to function appropriately.
Treatment and Preventative Methods for SAD
"How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder?"
Seasonal Affective Disorder can be challenging to manage and cope with. However, there are ways to reduce its effects and keep it from coming back year after year. These are a few seasonal affective disorder treatments preventative steps including seasonal affective disorder self care routines to help:
The proper medication can be a potential cure for seasonal depression. It can serve as a preventative not only to reduce SAD symptoms but to help you cope. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms so they can see which medication may be proper for you.
Spend More Time Outside, Even When it's Cloudy
SAD symptoms typically show themselves in the winter, when sun access is limited. Combine this with cold weather, and you have a recipe for SAD. Even when it's cold or cloudy, getting outside can be one of the most effective and natural ways to cope with seasonal depression. That little access to sunlight helps your brain rebalance its serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin D levels.
Exercise for 30 Minutes, Three Days Per Week
Regular exercise, especially in sunlight, can boost your brain's "feel good" chemicals, serotonin, endorphins, etc. Find a workout routine that works for you and implement it into your daily activities. If you can't get outside or to the gym, try implementing regular exercise from your home's comfort. Those exercises don't have to be intense, instead designed to get you physically active.
Implement Light Therapy into Your Daily Morning Routine
The preferred method of treatment for seasonal affective disorder is light therapy. Light therapy is a simple, safe, and effective method of replacing lost access to sunlight. It involves sitting in front of a therapy lamp for 20-30 minutes each day. The light mimics sunlight and helps reset your circadian rhythm. This allows your body to adjust and produce essential chemicals that are vital to both health and wellness.
A primary key to avoiding SAD syndrome is
Keep Yourself Involved in Regular Activities
Being social is key to our survival, and SAD can cause us not to be social. While challenging, social activities can offer a way to cope with seasonal affective disorder and provide you with a support group to lean on. If you can't get around people or are struggling with where to start, try joining groups specific to SAD for help. These groups provide like-minded individuals with first-hand advice for conquering your condition. Here are a few groups we recommend:
Center Your Diet Around Foods for Seasonal Depression
SAD is energy-sucking. That effect can lead you to a spiral of depression and mental fatigue. Combating this effect is an excellent step forward. Eat a well-balanced diet with vitamins and minerals recommended by the FDA. While SAD may cause you to crave surgery foods and carbs, try eating oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas. Those foods can increase your serotonin levels, which improves your mood and energy. These are the best foods for seasonal affective disorder:
- Lean Proteins: Food such as salmon and rib-eye steak are a great source of amino acids which may enhance your mood. Lean proteins can be an excellent source of energy which is key to battling fatigue.
- Flax Seeds and Walnuts: These are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been proven to affect your mood positively.
- Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries potentially help prevent the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Eating berries can be a great way to lower feelings of stress and serve as a seasonal affective disorder natural treatment.
- Folic Acid: While studies are limited, it's thought that the body uses folic acid to produce serotonin. You can get folic acid from leafy greens, soybeans, black-eyed peas, lentils, fortified cereals, oranges, sunflower seeds, and oatmeal.
- Vitamin B-12: Having low vitamin B-12 levels is often associated with depression. Get a boost of B-12 by eating foods such as yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, eggs, wild salmon, crab, oysters, clams, and lean beef.
- Vitamin D: Access to sunlight is vital to vitamin D production. Supplementing for lack of sun exposure is essential to keep your levels adequate. You can get a healthy amount of Vitamin D from milk, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fish with bones.
- Dark Chocolate: One study gave participants a dark chocolate mixed drink every day for a month. They experienced a significant improvement in mood, linked to the high polyphenol content in the chocolate.
- Turkey: Turkey is an excellent source of tryptophan and melatonin, which have a calming and relaxing effect. They're why we feel tired after Thanksgiving dinner. Harness the power of turkey when you feel stressed from SAD.
- Bananas: Bananas, like Turkey, have tryptophan. Additionally, they contain carbohydrates, natural sugars, and potassium which help fuel your brain. Another ingredient found in bananas is magnesium which helps enhance sleep quality and lower anxiety.
Add Supplements and Vitamins to Help with Seasonal Affective Disorder
As mentioned earlier, it's challenging to avoid seasonal depression when the window for sunlight is tiny. One method of beating the winter blues naturally is through taking vitamins and supplements for seasonal affective disorder. The following supplements and vitamins for seasonal depression can help alleviate symptoms:
- Vitamin B-3 and B-9: B vitamins offer a way to beat seasonal depression as they help the brain regulate moods.
- Vitamin D: A lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Taking vitamin D supplements can give you the boost to cope with seasonal depression.
- Melatonin: When in contact with sunlight, our bodies produce more melatonin, which is vital for healthy sleep. Try taking melatonin pills before bed to combat seasonal affective disorder. They may improve your sleep which is essential for your mental health.
- St. John's Wort: Taking herbal remedies for seasonal affective disorder such as St. John's Wort can lessen symptoms. Research shows that St. John's Wort combined with light therapy work even better.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C isn't just for your immune system. There has been a link between vitamin C and seasonal depression relief. Various studies have shown those with low vitamin C levels experience improved moods after taking Vitamin C.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Taking omega-3 supplements to help with seasonal depression might be beneficial. A University of Pittsburg study found those with higher omega-3 fatty acid levels were less prone to mild to moderate depression symptoms.
- Magnesium: Magnesium offers an indirect way to combat seasonal depression. Magnesium plays a role in converting serotonin and melatonin by facilitating chemical transformations—both of which aid in one's ability to cope with seasonal depression.
A healthy diet made to combat seasonal depression is an excellent holistic approach to SAD. The food we consume plays a significant role in our mental health. Fueling your body with the right food can be a massive aid for relieving symptoms.
Try Essential Oils for Seasonal Affective Disorder
While they won't be an end-all cure-all for overcoming seasonal affective disorder, they might give you a boost. Essential oils tend to have a therapeutic effect. They can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety while also having a grounding effect. You can either apply essential oils to your skin where it's then absorbed into your bloodstream or diffuse them and inhale to stimulate your nervous system. Here are a few essential oils for treating SAD:
- Bergamot: One of the most popular essential oils for treating depression, Bergamot oil originates from the lime-green bergamot orange. Keep in mind this oil will make your skin sun-sensitive.
- Orange and Lemon: Oils from citrus fruits can promote calmness and alertness. An added tip for coping with seasonal depression is to rub these oils on your temples for instant relaxation.
- Basil: Basil isn't just for cooking but can give you a mental boost to get through seasonal depression. Research shows basil can aid in preventing burnout and mental fatigue. For an additional concentration boost, mix it with peppermint or rosemary.
- Clary Sage: For anxiety relief and a better night's sleep, try clary sage. This herb promotes sleep and calmness.
- Rose: Many studies have shown rose oil to help relieve stress and depression symptoms. For more significant relief, consider mixing it with lavender oil.
Consult a Mental Health Professional Trained in Cognitive Behavior Therapy
With seasonal depression, how you cope is essential. Cognitive behavior therapy is a specialized method of treatment proven to help cope with SAD. It involves problem-solving and reshaping how one approaches and thinks about their condition. This means analyzing one's thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes towards a specific area in life. By doing so, they provide the appropriate steps and coping skills for seasonal affective disorder. Not only that, but you get professional tips to help with seasonal depression.
TAke the Necessary Steps to Reduce Stress
Stress can be a significant cause of SAD. Taking the appropriate steps to reduce stress can make living with seasonal affective disorder much more manageable. Try these simple steps:
- Identify what is stressing you out (work overload, bad relationships, etc.) and reduce their impact.
- Try out and implement daily relaxation techniques. Things like yoga, meditation, writing, muscle relaxation, and music can help take off the stress and turn your focus to more constructive thoughts.
- Add something to look forward to each day. Having fun is a simple technique that can reduce SAD. Throw in a daily practice that you can look forward to each day. It can be as simple as a TV show, game, or hobby you love doing.
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How to Help Someone with SAD
"How can I Help Someone with SAD?"
Whether it's a friend, family member, or you're dating someone with seasonal affective disorder, helping them can be scary and challenging. You may feel powerless or hopeless yourself. These simple actions and advice can make a world of difference in not just helping them but helping you cope with what they're going through.
Gain a Better Understanding
Try to gain a complete understanding of SAD and the effects it has. The better you understand the illness, the more you can help and aid them in coping. Use these key aspects and traits can help you better understand what's going on:
- Understand that SAD is a severe condition and won't simply "go away." It's a condition that impacts one mental, physical, and sheer will. It takes a lot of time to cope with and manage.
- Do not take it personally. SAD causes people to say pretty mean and harsh statements. It's essential to understand that it's not your loved one saying those things; it's their condition.
- Covering up their condition will not help. Instead, it will make it worse. SAD is a condition no one should take lightly. Do not attempt to downplay it or cover it up, as this will make the person feel worse and deter them from seeking help.
- Practice patience and know your loved one isn't lazy. SAD plays a much more significant role in one's life than we may even realize. It makes it hard for people to get up in the morning, let alone work hard, and feel motivated. It's essential to be patient with them. Be an unconditional, selfless source of support for them.
- Understand you cannot "fix" them or their condition. SAD is not something you can rescue your loved one from. While you can help them, it is entirely up to them to overcome their illness. The only thing you can do is be a support system.
Know the Signs of SAD
Being able to identify the signs can make a world of difference in helping. These signs can help you reach out and ask about what's going on. These are a few surefire signs they have seasonal depression:
- They don't seem to care about anything anymore. They may not care about pleasurable activities such as hobbies, sex, work, relationships, and being social.
- They're abnormally negative. Those with SAD tend to have a tough time being positive. They may be overly sad, agitated, angry, moody, hopeless, or short-tempered.
- Frequently complains about being in physical pain or feeling drained. SAD can impact one's physical well-being. It can cause one to feel achy and sore. It also causes one to feel a lack of energy and trouble functioning as a result.
- Sleeps either too much or not enough. SAD can throw off one's sleep schedule significantly. This usually causes them to either sleep in too much or not get enough sleep.
- They're eating too much or too little. One of the effects of SAD is a significant change in eating habits. Those with SAD may experience a substantial difference in their eating habits. This can cause them to cope by overindulging or not eating enough.
- They're drinking a lot or using drugs. Another common coping mechanism is substance abuse. Those with SAD may begin to use alcohol or drugs as a method of escape.
Know How to Talk to Them
It's vital to be a compassionate and gentle source of support. Let them know it's okay to let their guard down, you're there to listen and help, and you won't judge. By far, the most significant thing you can be is an excellent listener. Let them open up, let you in, and speak up about how they feel, what they're going through, and how it's impacting their life. And above all, do not expect a single conversation to fix everything. SAD is something that takes time to cope with and overcome.
Ways to Start the Conversation
Starting the conversation can be the most awkward and challenging part of helping. Use these tips to start talking to your loved one about SAD, how it's making them feel, and how you can help:
- Point out things you've noticed. Take note of instances where they have not been themselves. Be gentle and show examples where you've seen them do things that are out of character.
- Let them know you're concerned. Starting a conversation can be difficult on both ends. Show empathy and concern when first starting. Let them know you care about them and have become worried about their well-being.
- Ask important questions. Questions can often be the gateway to helping them overcome their illness. Not only do they help you further understand what's going on, but they help show support and let your loved one figure things out. Here are a few questions we gathered from Help Guide to ask:
- “When did you begin feeling like this?”
- “Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?”
- “How can I best support you right now?”
- “Have you thought about getting help?”
Know What and What Not to Say
With SAD, certain statements can help significantly, and others can only hurt the situation. Saying supportive, empathetic, loving, and caring things is vital to helping anyone with SAD. Things such as "you're not alone," "I'm here for you," and "please tell me how I can help" help make the person feel comfortable opening up. On the other hand, statements such as "this is all in your head," "just snap out of it," and "you should feel better by now" may isolate your loved one. With every statement, be aware of the tone and impact it may have.
encourage Them to Seek Help
A significant cornerstone around SAD is the loss of motivation. This can make getting help difficult. Here are a few tips to gently push your loved one to seek the help they may need:
- Encourage them to get a general check-up with a physician. As mentioned earlier, one of the major causes of SAD is the change in one's access to sunlight. This change can cause our body to have adverse reactions, SAD being one of them. Getting a check-up can help identify if they need additional supplements or further treatment from a psychiatrist or psychologist. This professional opinion can make a world of difference.
- Help them find a doctor. SAD can zap all of your energy and motivation, making it very difficult to seek help. Taking that hurdle away can get them on the right path. Research various doctors and check with their insurance if it's covered. Doing so can put your loved one in the proper motions to get better.
- Give them a list of things to help with seasonal depression. As shown earlier, there are many seasonal depression treatment options. Gather a list of potential methods backed by seasonal affective disorder research. This can offer encouragement to the sufferer and even motivate them to take action.
- Help them make a list of symptoms they have. SAD is overwhelming. It creates a whirlpool of emotions that can cause the person to freeze up. Help them compile a list of symptoms and observations to bring to the doctors. This can help the doctor better identify the appropriate treatment methods.
Best Practices for Supporting Their Treatment
Helping someone with seasonal depression is not easy. It requires a lot of compassion, patience, and empathy. Here are a few best practices for being supportive with treatment:
- Give them whatever support they need and are willing to accept. Try helping them with appointments, stay on top of their treatments, and stay on the path to being better.
- Be realistic about your expectations. Be patient with treatment. Expect there to be hurdles and setbacks with your loved one. Try to focus more on the path rather than the end game.
- Set a good example for them to follow. Try to be someone they can follow and admire. Try to lead a healthier, more mindful life. Do so by having a positive outlook, eating healthier, exercising, or being a person one can lean on for support.
- Encourage them to be active. Try to get your loved one out when possible. Encourage healthy activities such as exercise, keeping in touch with their wellness, and doing activities they love. It's essential to be persistent yet gentle.
- Invest in products for seasonal depression. We live in an age where helping people with seasonal depression is easier than ever. Try gifting them products such as therapy lamps, exercise equipment, or other health aids that promote wellness. These might empower them to deal with their seasonal depression.
- Help out whenever you can. SAD can cause simple tasks to become troublesome. Helping them with small tasks such as chores can provide relief. Even little pick-me-ups such as a surprise coffee can give them the boost they need. Do so, of course, when it does not significantly hinder your quality of life or well-being.
S.A.D. Knowledge and Advice from Experts
We asked multiple health professionals from various areas of healthcare for their input on seasonal affective disorder, how it works, and methods of combatting it. Below, you'll find a few best practices they use with their patients.
- Causes of SAD: The specific causes of both winter and summer SAD is unknown, but it is theorized that SAD occurs as a result of changes in serotonin, circadian rhythms, and melatonin. Seasonal changes may affect serotonin levels in certain individuals, and this may trigger depression in those who experience a drop in serotonin. Also, as autumn begins, the decreased levels of natural sunlight affect circadian rhythms—which can negatively impact an individual’s internal body clock; this can affect sleep, mood, and normal daily activities. As well, melatonin production can be affected by the changes in seasons, and these changes can affect sleep, mood, and—as a result—daily routine. Certain key symptoms are present in both winter and summer SAD, such as feeling depressed nearly every day for the bulk of the day, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness, sleep difficulties, and suicidal or death-related thoughts. Winter SAD tends to involve greater lethargy, hypersomnia, increased appetite, craving for carbohydrates, and lower energy. Summer SAD, which is less common than winter SAD, tends to include the differentiating symptoms of insomnia, weight loss, and poor appetite.
- What is SAD? SAD is a type of major depression. In clinical terms, SAD is termed “major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern.” Far different from occasional winter blues or seasonal melancholy, a diagnosis of SAD requires, per the DSM-5 “a regular temporal relationship between the onset of major depressive episodes in major depressive disorder and a particular time of year.” Other key elements that help differentiate from occasional blues include a full remission of symptoms after the problematic seasons have changed, a current two-year period when symptoms were present in the problematic seasons with a lack of depression and other symptoms in the non-problematic seasons. Finally, for SAD to be diagnosed, there must be a historical pattern indicating that the individual has had substantially more seasonal major depressive episodes than nonseasonal major depressive episodes. In short, there is a dramatic difference between occasional winter or summer blues and a clinical diagnosis of SAD (major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern)
- Key symptoms of SAD: Certain key symptoms are present in both winter and summer SAD, such as feeling depressed nearly every day for the bulk of the day, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness, sleep difficulties, and suicidal thoughts. Winter SAD tends to involve greater lethargy, hypersomnia, increased appetite, craving for carbohydrates, and lower energy. Summer SAD, which is less common than winter SAD, tends to include the differentiating symptoms of insomnia, weight loss, and poor appetite.
- Co-occurring disorders: Research shows that SAD is more common in those with recurrent major depression and bipolar disorders. Thus, if an individual has a history of other mental health issues, it is important to be aware of this connection. In general, research indicates that younger individuals are at higher risk for winter SAD episodes, so it’s vital that loved ones assist in obtaining appropriate and timely support.
- Treating SAD: Psychotherapy can afford coping strategies and offer validating support. As well, the support of a physician is also helpful in that lab tests, vitamin therapy, and light therapy can be ordered to address some of the underlying causes. As well, getting natural sunlight, regular good sleep, and PLENTY of exercise are effective, no-cost tools for improving SAD symptoms.
The global COVID pandemic has introduced a wide range of challenges to society overall, and particularly to individuals at risk for anxiety and depression. A recent study from the CDC has shown that depressive symptoms have increased threefold during the pandemic (Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057). Fears and anxiety related to the possibility of contracting the virus, spreading it to loved ones, and possibly a loss of life are causing a great deal of stress and distress. In addition, the public health measures, such as social distancing, a reduction in social activities, as well as other public health restrictions have imposed an additional set of stressors related to the human need to emotionally connect with others.
As we move into the fall and winter, this poses as a challenge but not an impossible situation. For all people, it may be advised to keep a consistent sleep schedule and daily routine with as much exposure to outdoor light as possible. Implementing aerobic exercise for at least 30-45 minutes three to four days a week can help to decrease risk for MDD. If you have had MDD or SAD in the past, consulting with a Psychiatrist or other mental health professional to come up with a treatment plan before the fall and winter months may help to prevent the onset of a depressive episode. Fortunately in most cases, depression can be prevented with a well thought out strategy and plan that touches on the different aspects of our brain and mental health.
- Light therapy is one of the most common treatments for seasonal affective disorder. It involves sitting in front of a light therapy lamp or light therapy box for 30 minutes per day, ideally first thing in the morning. This treatment can be done for 1-2 weeks or throughout the entirety of the difficult season.
- Dawn simulators help with getting up in a better mood during the dark days of winter. These are like alarm clocks that start with dim light at a scheduled time, gradually brightening to a very bright light that should be shining right in your face at the time you need to wake up. Using these types of machines helps you start your day in a better state of mind even when seasonal affective disorder is impacting you.
- Exercise is an important treatment for any mood disturbance, especially if you do it consistently. Even with seasonal affective disorder, you'll find the same mood boosting benefits that exercise can provide in other forms of depression. Outdoor exercise is especially beneficial, if you're able to bundle up and get active. If the weather is a problem for your usual outdoor run or hike, try snowshoeing or skiing.
- Seasonal affective disorder can improve on its own, even without treatment, as the season passes. However, neglecting to engage in any sort of treatment is not a good idea, as there is a risk that the symptoms will worsen and you could end up experiencing a more serious case of SAD or trigger a major depressive episode. Pay attention to your symptoms and be proactive to get through the season as healthy as you can.
- Spend as much time as possible outdoors. Start thinking now about buying warm clothes, investing in a fire pit or heater for the backyard, anything that will allow you to increase your ability to spend time outdoors and in the sunshine.
- Stay connected to others. Social support is always incredibly important for emotional resilience, but even more now at a time when that has been so limited for so many. Things like setting up regular Zoom game nights with friends, virtual dinners with extended family members, or distanced and masked in-person gatherings can do so much to keep the feelings of sadness at bay.
- Be mindful of alcohol intake. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. This means that any amount you drink can make you more likely to get the blues. If you are already experiencing things like sadness, fatigue and apathy, drinking is only going to make it worse.
- Try light therapy. Light therapy works through exposure to significantly increased levels of light in order to help the brain produce more serotonin, a hormone that affects mood.. Basically, you sit in front of a special box or lamp that gives out up to 10,000 lux of fluorescent light, which is more than 20 times brighter than most indoor light for about 30 minutes a day. It can take a couple of weeks to work, but many people report feeling an improvement in their mood after using it.
- Consider medications during the winter months. Although many people take anti-depressants to manage their symptoms year-round, people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder can benefit from taking them only during the times of year that they are affected. This can make a huge impact on how you feel on a day to day basis, especially at a time when so many other coping skills and resources are unavailable.
- Talk to a therapist. This is such an incredibly challenging time for people. The pandemic has taxed everyone’s resources and available stress management strategies, and we are expected to manage all of life’s stressors (and so many new ones!) just like before. In therapy, you can talk to someone about everything you are thinking and feeling, and work with them to create solutions that work for you and your life. Whether it’s learning to identify triggers, develop a plan for coping or reaching other wellness goals, finding a therapist who can help give you support, compassion and guidance can be a real life-changer.
- Keep a routine. It can be tempting to stay under the covers for longer when it’s dark out, or to feel like it’s time to end the day at 5pm when there’s no more sunlight. But making changes to daily routines, especially if it results in more isolation or increased sleep, can be detrimental to mood and functioning. Try to keep your same schedule as during the summer as much as possible—meals at the table instead of being tempted to eat in bed or on the couch, sticking to regular work hours, and even small things like brushing your teeth at the same time every day can help provide consistency and emotional regulation.
- Use your bed for sleeping and sex—nothing else. Beds have become the new multitools—they can turn into where we work, eat, relax, and do everything in between. But increasing the time that you spend in bed can blur the lines between day and night even more, and lead to increased difficulty with motivation and drive. Try to create some separation between your bed and other day-to-day activities in order to give yourself the most amount of hours of activity as possible.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as a type of Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.. For most individuals the pattern and symptoms appear in the fall and winter months and for some the pattern and symptoms can also appear in the rainy season of the spring. The symptoms can include fatigue even with a lot of sleep, weight gain from overeating, cravings of certain comfort foods, difficulty thinking or making decisions, sad or depressed mood with thoughts of death or suicide and loss of interest in things once enjoyed. Because some of the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder may overlap with other disorders it’s diagnosis can be complicated and missed or just given “you’ve got the blues” type of disclaimer. But Seasonal Affective Disorder can feel overwhelming and interrupt your daily life in a way that takes you off your path of wellness and purpose.
The most prescribed treatment method, and the one that can create some quick relief is the use of light therapy. This treatment method requires the purchase of a light therapy box or “happy light” (found on Amazon) and a dedication to sit in front of it for approximately 20 minutes a day. The light needs to be close enough to be seen with your eyes, without looking directly into the light. For some having the light where they eat breakfast or lunch and turning it on when they start and off when they finish is just enough to change the body’s responses.
If purchasing a happy light isn’t an option for you then making time to be outdoors or positioning your home furniture or home office furniture toward the outdoor daylight is another treatment option. Taking the time to walk, sit or enjoy the outdoors to soak up the natural light, even when cloudy, can affect the way the mind makes sense of the season.
Sometimes health professionals will prescribe medication to increase levels of serotonin to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms. Much of our serotonin resides in our gut so gut health is key. Maintaining healthy eating, with regular exercise can help with the increase of serotonin too. Adding a probiotic to your diet in addition to an Omega 3 can help to build or maintain the proper digestion improving your body's ability to manage all levels for wellness.
Trying to “tough it out” isn’t a very helpful strategy if you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. At times the symptoms can trigger other issues that can overwhelm quickly. Seeking help from a licensed professional counselor using a Cognitive Behavioral approach can help you objectively see the symptoms and develop strategies to help.
- Get 15 minutes of sunlight - Natural sunlight helps regulate a slew of neurotransmitters, hormones and Vitamin D. Getting at least 15 minutes a day of sun on the skin can keep you feeling emotionally stronger. Most people leave their house when it's dark, work in an office without natural light and then leave their office after the sun sets getting little to no natural light during the colder months. While it may be hard to do, get outside whenever possible, ideally daily when the sun is out for 15 minutes. Even with heavy winter gear on, any skin that gets some sunlight will help you out.
- If getting outside is not a possibility invest in a full-spectrum light bulb and put it somewhere where you spend a fair amount of time at home. This mimic the light of the sun and will replace the loss of natural light.
- Exercise - Exercise helps produce feel good neurotransmitters and doesn't have to be extremely intense, 25-45 minutes of moderate activity can give you a mood boost.
- Stick to a regular sleep routine. This one is hard when it's dark and cold out, but succumbing to the temptation to stay in bed can make symptoms of SAD that much worse. If that means you are going to bed early, that's okay, just stay consistent.
Richale R Reed MA, LCMHCS, LCAS
Founder & CEO
It's not just citizens of Emerald City that will be experiencing the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this winter but countless world-wide citizens due to the current pandemic. I suggest to my clients that in order to beat S.A.D get G.L.A.D!
Get Out and get some Vitamin D from the sunlight. Always paying close attention to Vitamin D levels is also necessary. We also gain vitamin D from food but if that is not enough, consider an OTC supplement, and if there are no changes see your primary doctor to conduct lab work and go from there.
Light'en Up by increasing natural sunlight despite the great difference in the radiance of the sun. Depression loves darkness! It feeds off of it. Now that most Americans are working from home, take advantage of it making it a priority to open the blinds as soon as the sun comes up. Natural light, even on cloudy days, makes a huge difference in our mood. So open the blinds and let God's natural light come in!
Adjust your attitude! If you are like me, a summer baby, you dread the Winter. I suggest considering your power to choose and choose to shift your perspective on Winter and learn to enjoy it. This process starts with the mind followed by some doing! You can do this by getting out and enjoying the weather alone or with friends.
Daily routine is key so make sure you maintain a regular daily routine, making gradual improvements to your diet and exercise. Remember that eating too many carbs and high sugar foods can contribute to the negative effects of S.A.D symptoms packing on more unwanted pounds.
Sierra Hillsman, M.Ed., APC, NCC, CCTP
Licensed Associate Professional Counselor
- Ways to prepare for SAD include utilizing technology to remain connected from a social standpoint. There are a number of online critical thinking games that can help with engagement.
- A number of individuals have the option to work remotely, which provides the opportunity for work-cations. This means taking one's laptop or work devices on a trip 2-3 hours away to engage with new scenery. This can help with mindfulness and providing a sense of gratitude.
- Products to consider purchasing are lightboxes or lamps when one is not able to enjoy the natural light provided by the sun.
- Creating an activity chart that houses your goals for physical activity is a huge help as well. Consider obtaining a giant note pad, whiteboard, or journal to visually track your progress with these goals.
It’s something we need to be very conscious of and aware of. When there’s not as much sunlight and people aren’t getting out as much or if they don't have the connection, then there’s a high likelihood that we could see something similar to seasonal affective disorder going on. When winter comes and they’re closed in, it's all the more important to connect with loved ones and friends. There are many similarities with what we're seeing now [because of COVID-19] in terms of isolation -- that’s part of what triggers seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that is secondary to decreased sunlight. Like all forms of depression, it must be taken very seriously. Therefore, most importantly, if you or anyone you know is suffering from SAD, seek help. Treatment is available.. In addition to antidepressants, talk therapy and light therapy can be helpful.
Good lifestyle habits are also important. Don't self-medicate with alcohol. Don't isolate, spend time with people whose company you enjoy. Get plenty of exercise as it increases serotonin levels naturally. Serotonin boosts your mood. On sunny winter days, get outside so that you can increase your levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D supplementation may be helpful, but as of yet is not an approved treatment for SAD.
I have observed that there is not one single approach relieving the symptoms of SAD and that it takes a combination of approaches. It is important that someone who is experiencing SAD first consult their doctor to ensure that the symptoms do not stem from a physical condition.
Some approaches that have been helpful for those experiencing SAD are:
- Taking vitamin D supplements: Many people in the United States are deficient in Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression. One way our body makes vitamin D is through direct exposure to sunlight. In the fall and winter seasons, there is less natural sunlight leading to less vitamin D production in our bodies.
Taking a vitamin D supplement can help make up for the lack of Vitamin D our body is producing due to the lack of sunlight. This can help with symptoms of SAD by helping to alleviate depressive symptoms.
- Light Therapy: Light therapy mimics natural sunlight creating changes in our brain to lift and elevate mood. Light therapy is a very accessible approach in helping to fight off the winter blues. To purchase a lamp for light therapy, it's as easy as hopping on Amazon.com and typing in "light therapy lamp". The key is to find a lamp with at least 10,000 lux of light and emits as little UV light as possible.
Light therapy is very practical and only takes 20-30 minutes a day in the morning with the lamp 16-24 inches away. You could be watching T..V., working on your laptop, reading, etc. while at the same time doing light therapy.
- Talk Therapy: Sometimes, what someone is experiencing around fall and winter that feels like SAD, may have its roots in something else completely. For example, an adult may have experienced a traumatic event during childhood in the fall or winter. Though time has passed and that adult may believe the experience does not affect them negatively any longer, that traumatic experience could have lingering effects impacting their mood in the fall or winter. Vitamin D and light therapy may help but until the root cause is resolved, it will likely lead to SAD like symptoms each fall or winter due to the traumatic event.
- If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), investing in a good light therapy lamp is a low-risk, high-reward first step. Many people with SAD show improvement when they spend time each day with a special lamp designed to emulate daylight. Although it's unlikely to be a silver bullet, using the lamp fits easily into your daily routine, and it's very inexpensive overall.
- If you're feeling depressed, from SAD or otherwise, one of the most important steps you can take is to ensure you're not making your depression worse through your behaviors. Our mind looks for cues and references what our body is doing to help inform feelings, so if you ACT depressed, you're more likely to FEEL depressed. Take stock of your most common behaviors when you're feeling depressed in the fall and winter: do you isolate? Stay in bed? Watch videos on your phone all day? Whatever it is, make sure to actively avoid doing those things.
- Following from the above bullet, make sure you are also doing the things that tell your mind that you're feeling good, even if they don't feel natural while you're depressed. Talking with friends on the phone, playing an instrument - whatever healthy behaviors are in your life make sure you keep doing those things.
- Be mindful of when you slip into unhelpful thinking patterns. It's very easy to get caught in negative thought spirals when you're feeling depressed, where the line of thought only serves to bring you further down.
The first step in avoiding this is to notice when it's happening in the first place - the most effective way to do this is to practice mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation. If you're new to mindfulness I recommend starting with a smartphone app - there are numerous good ones, but my top recommendations for scientific validity and meditation quality are Headspace and 10% Happier.
The second step is to know what you're being mindful for: unhelpful thinking styles. Unhelpful thoughts are thoughts that hurt you emotionally, whether or not they're "right" or "wrong," and take regular-intensity emotions and boost them into highly disruptive or unpleasant emotions. Examples of these lines of thinking are thinking in "black and white," intentionally disregarding the importance of positive things in your life, and jumping to (negative) conclusions.
- Get moving. Head to the gym and exercise or take the stairs at work. Aerobic exercise in particular stimulates endorphins and can help you to feel better. It’s also a good way to burn stress, and if you’re exercising in a gym or part of a group it provides social interaction which helps with depression and isolation that are common with SAD.
- Get exposure to outdoor light. Yes, even though it’s cold, bundle up, get outside and walk for at least 10 minutes a day. Light enters the brain through the eyes and impacts serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that play a role in mood. So instead of seeing cold as unbearable, focus on the sunshine and the benefits that come with it.
- Hit the road. I advise all my patients who are prone to SAD to plan a getaway if possible given COVID. It gives you something to look forward to rather than dwelling on the long cold winter and it provides a healthy dose of sunshine and warmth.
- Get closer to the window. If possible arrange your office so that your desk is closer to the outside and to sunshine. This will provide natural light which will also help to enhance your mood. If this isn’t possible, consider a light therapy box. This is a device that creates an artificial light mimicking natural light.
- Get social.
As with other mood disorders surrounding yourself with understanding, supportive, and encouraging people can help lift your spirits. Find people whom you trust and lean on them for support and plan activities like movies and dinners.
- Change your attitude about winter. Rather than dreading it and seeing it as a long endless season, see it as an opportunity to get involved with new activities. Perhaps skiing, sledding, or ice skating are fun activities worth trying with your friends? Embrace those things that are only available for a limited time every year.
- Create a social atmosphere. A social atmosphere has been proven to help shield people from the threat of isolation and depression. By staying connected, individuals are less likely to fall into the gap of loneliness and may feel that they have a network of others to rely on in case depressive symptoms emerge. Interacting with friends, family, and even pets can be extremely therapeutic and produce blissful moments of joy and happiness.
- Keeping active, physically and mentally. Staying busy and engaged is invaluable in protecting oneself against the pitfalls of depression. Not only does this lend a helpful distraction from other life issues such as chronic illness, pain, grief, or in the case of 2020 the pandemic, but it gives you an opportunity to look forward to and focus on something more positive and endearing.
Working the body physically helps release feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that can naturally lift the mood without medications.
Get out into the sunshine as much as possible (even if that involves waking up earlier) to reap the benefits of daylight.
Take a Vitamin D supplement (as recommended by a Physician).
- If you fear a loved one is battling depression, early intervention is key. If the family sees warning signs such as changes in weight, appetite, sleep schedule, mood, or desire to participate in their favorite activities, this is an indicator that help is needed. Consult a medical professional to rule out potential depressive symptoms. If there is a threat of depression, the physician may offer tips on how to combat it or make a referral to Psychologist/Psychiatrist for further follow up and treatment.
- For older adults, sign them up for social media. Many seniors, for various reasons, are unable or reluctant to utilize technology to their benefit. It can be an invaluable experience when a family member sits down with the senior and walks them through the process of signing up to a social media page. Teaching them how to navigate a social website may help them reconnect with family members and old friends, while opening the door to them potentially making new friends. This can expand the individual’s social network and greatly improve quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Seasonal Affective Disorder cause Insomnia?
Yes, SAD can cause sleep disorders such as insomnia. The reason being lies in the lack of sunlight one receives during fall/winter. Sun deprivation leaves the body unable to produce essential hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. Both are responsible for relating the sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm).
Do Full-Spectrum Lights help Seasonal Depression?
Full-spectrum light therapy is a proven method of treating seasonal depression. These lamps produce the recommended 10,000 LUX to mimic sunlight effectively.
Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Real?
SAD is a clinical mental condition that affects 5% of the US population each year. Most cases occur during the fall and winter months. It's often associated with negative thoughts and emotions, low energy levels, sleep disruption, extensive weight gain or loss, and more.
While it Does Take Patience and Practice, SAD is Manageable
Seasonal affective disorder can be hard to treat. There is no best treatment for seasonal affective disorder as this varies based on the person's condition. Sometimes it takes testing various ways to deal with seasonal affective disorder to find what can help with your SAD. But with the right amount of effort and support, handling it can be manageable.
Which seasonal affective disorder tip did you find most manageable? How do you cope with yours? Let us know in the comments below.
All information provides above is only intended to be personal advice and tips, not medical advice. If you are feeling suicidal, please seek expert help or contact the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
About the Author
Brandon Landgraf is the Digital Marketing Manager for Carex Health Brands. He finds passion and fulfillment in creating content that enhances, improves, and enlivens others' quality of life. All of his written work is formulated to not only offer essential advice and tips but back it with proven studies and experts. His mission is to connect with readers and provide steps to make their lives better.
You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.
About Carex Health Brands
Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.