Sad or SAD? Combating Winter-Onset Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the days grow colder, shorter, and darker in many places, it is common to experience fatigue, sadness, loneliness, and other symptoms that mirror depression. What’s going on? If these issues seem to occur only during the winter but then disappear when spring arrives, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, aptly abbreviated as SAD, or seasonal depression. This diagnosis is a mood disorder characterized by mood swings, low energy, apathy, irritability, hopelessness, loss of interest, and social withdrawal.

Why This Happens

While there is no sole cause attributed to seasonal affective disorder, certain factors such as circadian rhythm, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels play a part. For example, reduced sunlight in winter can disrupt your biological clock. Along with this, decreased sunlight can affect the body’s levels and production of serotonin and melatonin, which both have an effect on mood and sleeping patterns. People may also be more at risk if SAD runs in their family, they already experience a mood disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder, or they live far from the equator. There are also some individuals who experience summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, which can trigger insomnia, agitation, and anxiety from spring to summer.

Ways to Cope

You may be tempted to brush off winter-onset seasonal affective disorder as “winter blues,” but seasonal affective disorder is a real diagnosis that can present with acute symptoms the same way major depressive disorder can. Nevertheless, there are ways to cope.

Get Outside or Use a Sun Lamp

Consider spending time outside when there is sunlight to capitalize on the benefits. Even if it’s cloudy or rainy, getting outside in nature if you are able still has benefits. If sunlight is rarely accessible to you during the winter months, invest in a happy light or sun lamp to engage in light therapy as this will help to regulate your circadian rhythm and balance your serotonin and melatonin levels. These devices simulate sun exposure and are proven to increase energy levels and elevate one’s mood and happiness. For best results, use your sun lamp every morning at the same time for about thirty minutes. Consult with your doctor if you have questions or concerns about usage.

Connect With Others

Connecting with others in your community can also be a wonderful way to combat some of the effects of seasonal depression even if you have the urge to withdraw or self-isolate. Since winter-onset seasonal affective disorder occurs during the holiday season, consider creating new holiday traditions to engage in with your loved ones. Regardless of what you celebrate or even if past holiday celebrations have been difficult for you, make this time of year special in a way that is accessible to you and meets your needs. Perhaps gift-giving isn’t your style or isn’t accessible for your family; instead, writing letters of gratitude or making something by hand can be a new tradition that allows you to connect during this time of year. Perhaps you and your family can even create a new recipe together or go visit a special place that holds meaning for your community.

Other Techniques

Other useful techniques may be to exercise or strengthen the mind-body connection through mindfulness. Talk to your doctor about medications that can be a helpful supplement to your treatment plan. In addition, seeking mental health counseling or support is imperative to determine whether what you are experiencing is a seasonal affective disorder or something else.

What to Notice

Identify your unique symptoms and make a note of when your symptoms start, stop, or seem to improve. Pay attention to if there are other stressors you are experiencing in your life or any other mental or physical health problems that could be impacting or exacerbating what you are currently confronting. Be mindful of how your symptoms are affecting your daily life and routine. If you or someone you know is needing support during this time of year – or any other time of year – contact Embrace Therapy today.

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