The Winter Blues: Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder
The holidays are over and the new year has begun. Our new year's resolutions may have been abandoned, lost in the commotion of work, school, and social life. Maybe, if you are one of the dedicated, responsible ones, you are still aiming for it. During this time, many people find themselves at a sort of standstill in between the holidays and springtime. Work continues, and school carries on. People might find themselves becoming stagnant and complacent in their daily lives. If you live anywhere other than Florida, it is most likely cold and snowy or gray and rainy.
The period between late fall and early spring tends to sap people’s energy and makes them moody. You might know someone who becomes reclusive and downcast during the winter, or you may even experience isolation yourself. There are many reasons behind this behavior. This is the time of year when many people experience seasonal affective disorder, ironically referred to as SAD.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of SAD?
People may start to feel “down” when the days get shorter in the fall and winter (also called “winter blues”) and begin to feel better in the spring, with longer daylight hours. In some cases, these mood changes are more serious and can affect how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in most cases, SAD symptoms start in the late fall or early winter and go away during the spring and summer; this is known as winter-pattern SAD or winter depression. Some people may experience depressive episodes during the spring and summer months; this is called summer-pattern SAD or summer depression and is far less common.
Symptoms of major depression may include: feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, or having problems with sleep. Additional symptoms include feeling sluggish or agitated, having low energy, feeling hopeless or worthless, having difficulty concentrating, or having frequent thoughts of death or suicide. If it gets severe enough to thoughts of suicide, it is crucial to seek help immediately. The National Suicide Hotline can be reached all hours of the day at 800-273-8255.
Oversleeping or hypersomnia is common for individuals with SAD. Overeating, particularly with comfort food like carbohydrates and sweets, is frequent. Oversleeping and overeating can lead to weight gain. These symptoms aid in perpetuating the cycle of depression. The persistent feeling of not wanting to do anything amplifies when chores pile up and seem like a giant, unapproachable task. Individuals also might feel like “hibernating” and isolate themselves by socially withdrawing to their rooms for extended periods of time.
Causes of SAD
Seasonal affective disorder has many potential causes. During the winter, sunlight is reduced because of the position of the Earth. This causes our biological clock, or circadian rhythm, to be thrown out of whack. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt the body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression. Another potential cause for SAD is the drop in serotonin caused by reduced sunlight that may trigger depression. Serotonin is a brain chemical and neurotransmitter that affects mood and plays a large role in feelings of happiness and the regulation of sleep and digestion. Melatonin is a hormone that is associated with the sleep-wake cycle and is based on sunlight. Both serotonin and melatonin are the key products in the body that are affected by seasonal affective disorder. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of homeostasis regarding serotonin and melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
How Is SAD Treated?
Since the 1980s, light therapy has been a key treatment for SAD. Light therapy aims to expose people with SAD to a bright light every day to make up for the diminished natural sunshine in the darker months. For this treatment, the person sits in front of a very bright light box every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, from fall to spring. Even though it may sound strange, light therapy has been proven to work. The results of this therapy are promising to those wanting a relatively quick resolution.
In addition to light therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy aimed at helping people learn how to cope with difficult situations. CBT works to address thoughts associated with behavior, and change those thoughts to, in turn, rewire behavior. CBT also has been adapted for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Individuals are taught to associate winter activities with feelings of pleasure. The change of belief about winter being a time of isolation to a time of socialization is helpful for those combating SAD. Clients might have outdoor group activities that help to reverse the negative associations they have with the winter. These group activities could involve ice skating, snowboarding, or therapeutic sessions that involve simply taking a walk as a group.
Another treatment option is medication. Because SAD is so common, medications have been developed to aid in the feelings of depression. Most medications are similar to those for people with persistent depression, but for people with SAD, they stop taking them in the summer. This is because most people with seasonal affective disorder do not need to take medication during the summer months. Medication can help boost mood and contribute to increased levels of motivation.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a disorder that impairs well-being and daily functioning, most often during the winter months. The symptoms of SAD include excessive sleeping, appetite gain or loss, socially isolating from others, and loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities. If you have noticed significant changes in your mood and behavior during the winter months, you might have seasonal affective disorder. This disorder affects millions of people around the world and many don't even realize they have it. Treatments like light therapy and psychotherapy are two of the most recommended options. To combat this disorder, we must be able to evaluate ourselves and address our mental health openly with others. If you would like more information regarding mental health services and resources, Achieve Medical Center would be happy to help. To schedule an appointment with Achieve Medical, contact us today at (619) 375-3977. We provide holistic mental health services for all ages in Southern California, Oregon, and Alaska regions.