What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Updated November 5, 2019

Silhouette of sad teenage girl looking out the window on a cold autumn day

The clocks just went back and we all know what that means – less daylight as winter nears.

Winter can mean snow, hot cocoa, and cozy evenings wrapped up in a blanket for some, but it can also bring Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for others. SAD is a type of depression triggered by the seasons changing.

People with SAD tend to feel the onset of depression symptoms when the weather shifts from summer to fall and winter. SAD can also occur in summer months, though it’s less common.

Sunlight and SAD

While researchers still aren’t exactly sure why this shift happens, most believe that a lack of sunlight is a key factor. Furthermore, SAD is more prevalent in areas farther away from the equator, where the winters are typically darker.

Sunlight triggers a release of serotonin – a brain chemical that makes us feel happy. So, when days get shorter, resulting in less sunlight, some people experience a noticeable dip in serotonin levels.

The reduction in sunlight could also throw off some people’s circadian rhythm and melatonin production, both help regulate sleep. A lack of sleep has also been linked to an increased likelihood of developing depression.

Symptoms of SAD:

• Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
• Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
• Low energy
• Problems sleeping
• Changes in appetite or weight; craving carbohydrates
• Feeling sluggish or agitated
• Difficulty concentrating
• Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
• Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

While SAD can affect anyone, it’s more prevalent among women ages 15 to 55. People who have a close relative with the condition are also more likely to be affected.

Ways to Cope With SAD:

A common treatment for SAD is light therapy. Since the culprit is believed to be a lack of light, adding it back in (even artificially) has helped some SAD sufferers feel better. Treatments can involve using a light that simulates the sunrise, which can help reset your circadian rhythm. Other options include the use of a blue or white light to trigger serotonin releases in the brain.

In addition to light therapy, there are other ways to help cope with depression during the winter and holiday months.

  1. Know Your Limits

    Everyone has felt pressure from their family for one thing or another. While we may know that our families mean well, sometimes it might not feel that way. When you’ve got parents expecting you in one place, and in-laws expecting you somewhere else, it’s easy to feel spread too thin this time of year.

    It may be easier said than done, but knowing when to put your foot down could save your mental health. The next time you feel overwhelmed by holiday pressures, don’t be afraid to say when you need to a breather. A simple, “I’m going to go get some fresh air,” should be a simple way to excuse yourself and regroup.

  2.  Give Back

    We’ve all experienced how being generous towards others can brighten your own day too. So, if you’re having a tough time this season, sign yourself up to volunteer somewhere. You could help out at a soup kitchen, volunteer at an animal shelter, or even just offer to help a neighbor string their Christmas lights. The act of being selfless that should improve your mood.

  3. Go for a Walk

    It’s so simple, but being outside can do wonders for your mental health. Walking at a brisker pace will force you to take deeper breaths. Deep breathing helps more oxygen get into your bloodstream, which is then carried to the brain. Having plenty of oxygen traveling to your brain can be a big help in regulating imbalances. On top of having more oxygen in your bloodstream, natural sunlight helps stimulate serotonin production in the brain.

While it might sound comforting to know these seasonal depression symptoms tend to ease up in the spring, it’s important to not ignore them while they’re happening. Depression can be a dangerous condition if left untreated and may lead to other problems, including disruptions in relationships, work issues, or substance abuse.

Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling and how to best treat your symptoms, or give us a call at 800.600.4096 and discuss Neurocore’s med-free depression program.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, October 21) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – Topic Overview. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/tc/seasonal-affective-disorder-sad-topic-overview#2
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