Feeling SAD? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

With winter coming, you might be feeling some mixed emotions. Maybe you’re sad to say goodbye to the sun and fun of summer, and the beautiful weather of fall, but maybe you’re also sustained by thoughts of holiday togetherness, or some cozy hibernation time. On the other hand, you might see nothing good in the long winter months, and might be counting the days til spring; you might even begin feeling blue as the days grow shorter. You should know, though, that “winter blues” are one thing, but they could become problematic for your mental health if you’re like a small but significant portion of the population who suffer from a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. So how do you know if you’re suffering from this condition, and how can you get some relief as you wait for the sunny days of summer to return?

What Is SAD?

If you’re starting to despair now that winter is just about here, you could be among the possibly 11 million people (or 3% of the population, depending on whose numbers you look at) that suffer from seasonal affective disorder. And if you have milder symptoms, then you could be among the 25 million who suffer from the winter blues. While the winter blues aren’t as serious as SAD, full-blown SAD is a type of mood disorder, and is considered a serious form of depression – the main difference between other forms of depression and SAD is that SAD happens at the same time every year. 

black and white picture of a woman looking out at water while bundled up and snow on the ground

While there is a rarer form of summertime SAD, it most often rears its ugly head in the winter. Why? Scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but some experts believe it’s related to lack of light in the winter (which is why it’s more common the further north you go, and less common in sunnier places like Florida). Less sunlight in the fall and winter months could mean your brain is making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. Others think that decreased sunlight exposure affects the natural biological clock that regulates hormones, sleep, and moods. It is also three times more likely to affect women than men, and might have a genetic component, as well.

Are You Feeling Sad, or Are You Suffering from SAD?

Whatever the cause, seasonal affective disorder can really disrupt your life for a big chunk of the year. What’s worse, it can often be overlooked or misdiagnosed, especially since the symptoms can mimic those of other conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, mononucleosis, thyroid disorders, or low blood sugar. To help determine whether you might be suffering from SAD, consider the past few years – have you:

  • Had depression that has started at around the same time?
  • Not felt your symptoms during other seasons?
  • Had more of this particular season with depression than without over your lifetime?
blue plate with letters spelling out weight gain in the middle
Weight gain is a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

So what specific symptoms should you be looking out for? They are generally similar to other kinds of depression, and include:

  • Feelings of despair or hopelessness
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Weight gain
  • Appetite changes, especially increased cravings for carbohydrates
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Reduced interest in sex
  • Lack of interest in social activities
  • Suicidal thoughts in extreme cases

If you are experiencing the symptoms above, speak to your doctor: they might diagnose you with SAD if you experience at least five of nine clinical symptoms for at least two weeks. Even if you don’t meet that criteria, you could still have a milder form of SAD, sometimes called the “winter blues,” or the more technical term, subsyndromal SAD. 

Can You Find Relief?

So what can you do if you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder? Are there ways to make the winter months more bearable? While there’s no “cure” for any kind of depression, there are things you can try to get some relief. For example:caucasian woman sleeping in bed

  • Lifestyle changes – There’s no magical way to stave off SAD by eating certain foods or following a certain regimen; however, you might be able to lift your mood a little by eating right, including plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as lean protein, getting enough exercise, finding social support, and, very importantly, practicing good sleep hygiene. Get to bed at the same (reasonable) time each night, and avoid blue light before bed. And, even if you want to sleep in all day, set an alarm for an early hour so you can experience some early-morning sunshine, which is the best light to help your body combat SAD. 
  • Light therapy – SAD might be partially caused by getting too little natural morning light and too much artificial light in the evening. To combat this, some experts recommend that you try using a light box that can help mimic morning sunlight, which gives you a spike in cortisol and a boost of energy. There is some evidence that sitting in front of a 10,000-lux (the measure of light intensity) light box for 30-45 minutes every day around sunrise during fall and winter decreases S.A.D. symptoms. But you have to be diligent about using it everyday around sunrise, and you have to be aware that not all light boxes are created equal. It’s best to do light therapy under supervision of a doctor, so speak to yours about finding a research-grade one that might be right for you.
  • Time outside – Light boxes can certainly be helpful, but there’s no substitute for natural light – even a rainy morning provides around 10,000 lux, and snow on the ground is even brighter, at 50,000 lux. But the best light for SAD seems to be the light outside within 30 minutes of sunrise – so set your alarm, and get out for an early morning stroll!
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Something that might be even more helpful than light therapy is speaking with a psychotherapist and engaging in some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In some studies, CBT was found to prevent recurrences of SAD, probably because it provides long-term coping skills, not just physical relief.

The bottom line is: you don’t have to suffer all winter with the debilitating symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. The first step to getting some relief is recognizing your condition, and naming what is going on. Once you do that, you can speak to a professional and start making some changes that could make a real difference to your life, and make the long winter much more bearable.