Do you find yourself exhausted when the days start getting shorter? Do you lose motivation or feel overwhelmed with sadness? You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The good thing is, you’re not alone.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
It’s easy to brush off a change in mood when winter strikes. The cold weather, early sunsets and short days can really take a toll on your mental well-being. However, seasonal affective disorder is more than just “winter blues”—it’s a form of depression.
Symptoms of SAD
As such, symptoms of SAD are similar to major depression. You may notice:
- Sluggishness or agitation
- Daily feelings of depression
- Carbohydrate cravings and overeating
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Disinterest in activities you typically enjoy
- Sleeping too much
- Thoughts of death or suicide
What sets this mood disorder apart from the others is that SAD is brought on by specific seasons, as the name suggests.
For most people with SAD, symptoms begin in the fall but improve in spring. Though much less common, some experience the opposite with their symptoms starting in spring or summer.
Who Experiences Seasonal Affective Disorder?
As many as 5 percent of adults across the United States suffer from seasonal affective disorder. It’s more frequent in women than men, and symptoms typically start between the ages of 18 and 30. However, anyone can suffer from SAD at any age.
When to Seek Help
Everyone goes through mental health funks, but when mood changes are prolonged or begin to negatively affect or interfere with your life, it’s time to talk to a healthcare professional.
If the things you enjoy are no longer interesting to you, you’re experiencing changes in sleep or eating habits, or you’re having thoughts of suicide, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Remember, seeking help is always brave—never weak. Plus, more people struggle with their mental health than you think.
Why in Winter?
While there is no known cause for SAD yet, a few seasonal aspects may play a role. These factors primarily involve the decreased sunlight that occurs throughout the winter.
Not only are there fewer hours of sunlight in these months, but the sun’s rays are weaker since it sits at a lower position. For this reason, the farther you live from the equator, the higher risk you have of experiencing SAD.
Here are some ways this change in sunlight may affect your body:
- Circadian rhythm. Your internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, tells you when to wake up and fall asleep. Winter’s earlier sunsets and later sunrises can cause misalignment in our circadian rhythm and affect our sleep-wake cycle.
- Melatonin. If you’ve ever had sleep issues, you may have taken melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a hormone made in your brain that tells you when to sleep. Like your circadian rhythm, it’s affected by sunlight. Winter’s excessive dark hours can signal your body to produce more melatonin, making you tired hours before you’d want to go to sleep.
- Serotonin. When you spend time in the sun, your body naturally synthesizes vitamin D and eventually turns it into serotonin. Serotonin helps stabilize mood and boosts feelings of happiness. The cold weather and sun’s position in winter make it tough to get sufficient vitamin D, which can cause lower serotonin levels.
Tools to Combat SAD
If you’re struggling with SAD, try these tools to help fend off the sadness.
Try Out Light Therapy
Remember, winter’s darkness could mess with our circadian rhythm and cause unwanted melatonin production, but bright light can combat this in the same way. It’s precisely why sleep experts warn against using screens right before bed: the light interferes with our sleep.
However, when you’re trying to fight fatigue, this can be a good thing.
Give light therapy a try! Purchase a seasonal affective disorder lamp—a light therapy box that emits very bright full-spectrum white or blue light—and sit in front of it for about 20 minutes first thing every morning.
Soak Up the Sun
Aim to optimize that vitamin D and soak up the sunlight as much as possible. Heading outside every day can improve your mood, plus getting a little exercise can go a long way.
Try going for a walk in the morning or positioning your office desk near a large window. Don’t forget to slather on that sunscreen! (Yes, sun damage exists even in winter.)
Talk to Someone
It can be hard to admit you need help, but therapy can offer profound benefits. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a.k.a. talk therapy, works exceptionally well for treating seasonal affective disorder.
Remember that therapy can be part of a healthy self-care routine for anyone at any time, even without a diagnosed mental illness. It’s as much of a preventative measure as it is a treatment.
Take Vitamin D
About 40 percent of Americans experience a vitamin D deficiency. If your body isn’t synthesizing enough vitamin D from the sun, or you don’t consume enough in your diet, you might want to consider a supplement.
Low levels of this vitamin can lead to reduced serotonin levels. As a result, this lack could be impacting your mental health.
As always, chat with a healthcare professional before taking any supplements to see if it’s right for you.
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression. As such, your doctor may recommend taking antidepressants to support your mental health.
Just like any other part of your body, sometimes your brain needs some extra support for optimal function. There’s no shame in taking medication to treat SAD, just like there’s no shame in taking painkillers to treat a headache, or antibiotics to treat an infection.
Many people are affected by seasonal mood changes—you aren’t alone!
Light therapy, getting outside, and seeking professional help can make a big difference.
Remember, supporting your mental health is an act of self-care, and there’s no shame in asking for help.
- Epstein, Lawrence, and Syed Moin Hassan. “Why Your Sleep and Wake Cycles Affect Your Mood.” Harvard Health, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 13 May 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-your-sleep-and-wake-cycles-affect-your-mood-2020051319792.
- Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Oct. 2017, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651.
- Raman, Ryan. “How to Safely Get Vitamin D From The Sun.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 28 Apr. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-from-sun#overview.
- Torres, Felix. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” American Psychiatric Association, Oct. 2020, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder.
- WebMD. “MELATONIN: Overview, Uses, Side Effects, Precautions, Interactions, Dosing and Reviews.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-940/melatonin.