SAD is a clinical form of depression. Many people refer to it as the “winter blues” or “winter depression” because symptoms arrive in the fall and continue into the winter months. This type of depression is typically found in northern climates and affects approximately half a million Americans each year, with three out of four being women. The season for SAD is September to April with the worst period being December through February.
Research is unclear about the specific cause of SAD. It is important to know that people with SAD can be just as depressed as those suffering from other forms of depression, and it is considered a serious condition. It is believed that a deficiency in vitamin D and a lack of sunlight prevent the hypothalamus, a part of the brain, from functioning properly. When this happens, it can lead to a disruption in the circadian rhythms. When the rhythm is unbalanced, it can affect the levels of melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is the hormone that makes you sleep and people with SAD can have higher levels, which lead to fatigue. In turn, the levels of serotonin, the hormone linked to our mood and appetite decrease. Not having enough serotonin in the body is linked to depression.
Not only is being female a risk factor, but researchers have found that there seems to be a genetic predisposition to SAD. Additionally, location makes a difference. SAD is more common in people living in the far north or south of the equator due to abbreviated daylight hours during the winter months and longer daylight hours during the summer months. Along with gender and location, family history of SAD and prior experience with depression or bipolar disorder can also increase the risk of experiencing SAD.
SAD symptoms vary from person to person. They can be mild and increase in severity during the peak months and ease up once the sun starts to emerge. People who experience SAD can have decreased energy, trouble sleeping, loss of interest in activities, trouble concentrating, depressed feelings, social withdrawal, decreased sex drive and appetite or weight-gain changes. Comfort foods, such as carbohydrates and sugary items, are a common draw for people with SAD. It can be challenging to determine if someone is suffering from traditional depression or SAD. Keeping an eye on when you experience depressive feelings, such as if they worsen in the peak months like September but improve in March or April. It may take two or three seasons to be diagnosed. Seeking out health professionals to help evaluate your level of depression and the time frame you experience symptoms is important. They may even want to include lab testing to rule out other health conditions and additionally perform a psychological exam.
After you have been diagnosed with SAD, there are several things to try to help ease your symptoms and help you feel better:
1 – Using a light box – A light box is used to replace the lack of natural sunlight received in the winter months. It is a form of artificial light that filters out ultraviolet rays but mimics natural sunshine. The recommendation consists of using the light box every morning to start your day for at least 20 to 60 minutes.
2 – Exercising – Exercise can help decrease symptoms that arise from SAD and can also help decrease or stabilize weight gain that tends to appear from irregular eating.
3 – Taking a vitamin D supplement – Vitamin D is considered the “sunshine vitamin” as it is produced in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. It has been shown that this vitamin can improve mood and decrease the risk of SAD and depression in general.
4 – Getting fresh air– Going outside as much as possible during the day while the sun is out is the most beneficial for your body. The best time of day in which the sun is the strongest and brightest is around noon. If it is not possible to go outside at that time, then open the blinds to let in and expose your body to as much natural light as possible.
5 – Talking it out – Although it may feel safer being by yourself in isolation, the most beneficial thing that can be done for those enduring SAD is to surround themselves with those they love. Being around other individuals who are close to you can help boost your mood. Other ways to keep yourself from isolation can include: joining a support group for SAD, contacting an old friend to meet up, creating new relationships and volunteering your time for a positive cause.
6 – Eating healthy – A healthy, balanced diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables, with a decrease in highly processed foods (i.e., junk food) is very beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression.
7 – Reaching out for help – Talking to your health care provider can be helpful. Your physician will recognize common symptoms of SAD or another form of depression and can help make recommendations for treatment; if one does have SAD, therapy may be recommended.
8 – Taking medications – Antidepressants can be taken to help with symptoms of SAD. Two common drug types are serotonin reuptake inhibitors and bupropion. However, with any medication, there can be side effects. Therefore, talking to your physician before taking anything is always advised.
9 – Harnessing your mind-body connection – Practice being in the present moment, not focusing on the past or future, but rather what is going on in the moment. Be OK with saying no. Be present with others; this will help you strengthen relationships and let go of the negative history or stressors. Try to prevent or relieve a buildup of stress. This can be done by practicing relaxation techniques, partaking in activities you enjoy and figuring out your stressors and then trying to minimize them.
10 – Taking a vacation– Taking a vacation can give you a break from the daily routine, as well as help you escape the cold and the dark grey skies. Removing oneself from the daily environment can be helpful in lifting spirits. Aside from actually going, the preparation and planning of the trip can create an amount of excitement to also boost spirits.
11- Trying psychotherapy –A common therapy technique used for individuals with SAD or depression is called cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy focuses on challenging or changing negative thoughts and behaviors, improving emotional regulation and teaching coping strategies. Behavioral activation is used to help the individual find activities that are engaging and pleasurable, whether they are taking place inside or out; these activities help you to cope with the winter months.
12- Using dawn simulators – This device resembles an alarm clock but does not beep to alert you to wake you up. Instead, it produces a light that slowly increases in brightness, like the sun to wake you up in the morning. This can give your body a natural boost in the morning to get your day started.
13- Trying aromatherapy – Essential oils can help the area of the brain that controls mood and the body’s internal alarm clock that influences sleep and appetite. A few examples of essential oils that are beneficial include: jasmine, lavender, eucalyptus, sandalwood, rose and cedarwood.
14- Sticking to a schedule – A constant barrier for those with SAD is the trouble sleeping through the night and waking in the morning. Being able to keep a regular and constant schedule, for when you fall asleep to when you wake, will help to alleviate symptoms. It can also help you to get exposure to sunlight more consistently and can help you eat at regular intervals. Eating on a regular schedule will help to prevent weight gain and decrease symptoms of SAD.
15 – Journaling – Writing down current thoughts can help relieve negative feelings. The best time to journal is at night before bed for 20 minutes to reflect on the past 24 hours. It is important to write down all thoughts, feelings and concerns to help relieve that strain before bed, and this can help positively affect your mood and sleep.
16- Being proactive – Keeping a busy schedule full of exciting plans and multiple tasks helps to decrease the chance of staying in bed all day and hiding from the world.