What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The temperatures have dropped. The days are shorter. It’s dark when we wake up and dark before we even go to sleep. Have you noticed that the winter blues have crept in? It’s not all in your head. Seasonal affective disorder, also called seasonal depression or winter depression, is very real.

Wait, What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) refers to a significant change in your mood or behavior that coincides with the changing seasons. Symptoms of SAD typically pop up in the late fall or early winter and go away once spring hits.

Some sources say that 4% to 6% of people experience winter depression. 10% to 20% have mild seasonal affective disorder. Additionally, it’s four times more common in women than in men.

man with seasonal affective disorder looking out car window

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder Caused By?

While science doesn’t yet fully understand what causes seasonal affective disorder, there are a few theories. One theory is that people who experience SAD have lower activity of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to regulate mood. This might be because we don’t get as much sunlight in the winter, and exposure to sunlight helps maintain healthy serotonin levels.

Another theory is that winter depression happens due to an excess of melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. If your melatonin levels are off, then your body has a harder time knowing when to be awake, alert, and energetic and when to shut down for slumber. (This is why you shouldn’t use blue light-emitting devices, like your smartphone, at night. Blue light disrupts your body’s melatonin production, which is why it’s harder to sleep after scrolling on your phone in bed!)

A lack of vitamin D — which our bodies produce with the help of sunlight — might make things even worse. Plus, in the winter, we tend to be less physically active and spend more time indoors. We might even be seeing friends and family less, aside from the holiday celebrations. Social isolation and a lack of a support system can make us feel lonely.

All of these things combined can contribute to the onset of SAD.

What are the Warning Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While the winter blues will manifest differently from individual to individual, symptoms generally include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day and most days of the week.
  • Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy.
  • A lack of motivation.
  • Anxiety.
  • Fatigue.
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating.
  • Unusual cravings and weight gain.
  • Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
sad girl looking at holiday lights

Feeling sad or tired from time to time is normal! Human beings can and should experience the full range of emotions. What makes depression different is that the symptoms are much more persistent and long-lasting. I want to stress that you shouldn’t try to diagnose yourself if you think you might be dealing with SAD. Speak to your healthcare provider or mental health professional. Your seasonal depression might be part of a more significant mental health issue.

What Can You Do About It?

Thankfully, seasonal depression is treatable! Your healthcare provider will be able to recommend the best course of action for you, but here are some of the possible options:

  • Lifestyle changes: This is one of the more straightforward adjustments you can make. Spending more time outdoors can help. Even opening the blinds to allow in more natural light can make a difference. If you still can’t get enough sunlight, consider using a high-quality vitamin D supplement until you’re able to start spending more time outdoors regularly.
  • Light therapy: This is a common way to address SAD. It uses a special lamp to mimic outdoor light. You can find these lights for pretty affordable prices right on Amazon.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This is a common type of therapy used to treat many mental health matters, including depression. It has a great track record for improving mental health and provides incredibly long-lasting results — perhaps the best out of any treatment options.
  • Medication: Your provider might recommend prescription antidepressants to get you through the season, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Be sure to take them as prescribed.
woman doing yoga at home

I want to offer a gentle reminder. Experiencing any sort of depression is nothing to be ashamed of. And there is nothing wrong with seeking help! If you’re depressed, remember that there are options and you don’t have to live this way. If you’re having a hard time going to a mental health professional, ask someone you trust for help and support.

Can You Prevent SAD?

Research on this is light, but there is a chance that you can reduce your chances of experiencing seasonal affective disorder. If you have a history of it and know you’re prone to it, then before it hits (perhaps in early fall), you can start some of the approaches we mentioned above, like light therapy.

Having a game plan will also help you. If you typically like to exercise outdoors, plan home-based workouts or get a gym membership so you have a backup once the weather gets cold. Adjust your morning routine to include a few minutes of light therapy and meditation, journaling, or breathwork. Make plans to spend time with friends or family, so you don’t spend too much time indoors and by yourself.

While freezing temperatures and a lack of sunshine are enough to get any of us down, remember that you’re never alone. Reach out for help, try to adjust some of your lifestyle habits, and if necessary, talk to a professional and ask what else you can do to alleviate your symptoms of seasonal affective disorder!

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Jonathan Baktari MD

Jonathan Baktari, MD brings over 20 years of clinical, administrative and entrepreneurial experience to lead the current e7 Health team. He has been a triple board-certified physician with specialties in internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has been the Medical Director of The Valley Health Systems, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Culinary Health Fund and currently is the CEO of two healthcare companies.
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