Beating the Winter Blues: Science-Backed Tips to Combat Seasonal Sadness & Depression
Do the short, dreary days of winter leave you feeling not quite like yourself? Do you feel sluggish, have difficulty concentrating, have disrupted sleeping patterns, and experience bouts of (or constant) depression? With the holidays in full swing, it can feel contrary to be feeling moody or depressed, but the reason may have environmental and biological roots.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a biochemical disorder linked to fewer daylight hours and less natural light exposure in the winter. Specifically, scientists believe that SAD is due to disruptions in the body’s circadian rhythm and an imbalance of serotonin (the happy hormone) and melatonin (the sleep hormone).
It’s unknown why SAD affects some people and not others, but it’s estimated that roughly 5-10% of the population is affected by the disorder, with its prevalence rising the farther away from the equator you get (a number directly linked to the number of daylight hours in the location). Further, studies have shown that 10-20% of all recurrent depression follows a seasonal pattern.
Of course, not all depressive episodes can be classified as SAD, and just because you have some of the symptoms doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily depression-related. For these reasons, it’s best not to self-diagnose, but to instead consult a physician if you believe you’re being affected by SAD – especially if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or regular negative thought patterns.
Additionally, if you find that you’re experiencing changes in your mental health brought on by the recent social change in Lebanon, check out our Self-Care for Activists article.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
While the exact symptoms of SAD vary on a case by case basis, the general, all-encompassing symptoms are as follows:
– prolonged feelings of sadness or depression when the seasons change
– drastic changes in appetite or weight (with a craving for carbs often reported)
– feelings of agitation
– difficulty concentrating
– apathy and a lack of energy
– disrupted sleep patterns (difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
Symptoms of SAD usually appear in the late fall or early winter and last until early or mid-spring.
What about summer SAD?
While seasonal affective disorder is often related to winter, there is a minority of people with the disorder that experience it in the summertime.
Unlike winter SAD that is caused by less natural light exposure, it’s believed summer SAD is caused by too much sunlight; the effects of which produce disrupted circadian rhythms, just like in the winter.
Common summer SAD symptoms include prolonged feelings of sadness or depression, agitation, and difficulty sleeping.
What are some of the best ways to combat SAD?
1. Talk With Your Doctor or Therapist
As mentioned above, SAD is a form of depression and is best diagnosed by a physician.
Talking with a trained professional will help you differentiate SAD from other forms of depression and help you find the best course of action. They’ll also help you decide whether or not medication is necessary.
Further, a licensed therapist can help you with any underlying causes of your depression, and help you curb any negative thought patterns, stresses, or behaviors that compound the situation.
2. Keep a Journal
It’s often difficult to remember how you’ve been feeling day-to-day, especially over the course of several weeks.
If you suspect that you have seasonal affective disorder, even a mild form, then keep a journal of how you feel every single day. Not only will this help you understand your patterns better, but you’ll have something to take to your doctor or therapist should the situation progress.
Be sure to write down how you feel, any episodes of agitation, and your sleeping patterns.
3. Get Outside
With Seasonal Affective Disorder, getting outside as much as possible is a key way to cope. Specifically, it’s recommended to try to soak up as much natural sunlight as possible early in the day.
Go for a walk when the sun is high in the sky, or make a point to run errands during the daylight hours.
While having someone suggest exercise as a “cure-all” for SAD can often seem patronizing and simplistic, there is some science to suggest that regular exercise can have positive effects on seasonal depression.
According to Summit Medical Group, research has shown that patients who prioritize 30 – 60 minutes of exercise coupled with 20 minutes of exposure to natural sunlight a day report lower rates of seasonal depression.
The science behind this is that exercise releases endorphins, serotonin, and other happy-brain chemicals that are typically low in people with SAD.
5. Use Light Therapy
Also known as phototherapy, light therapy is one of the most common forms of treatment for seasonal depression. The idea is that using a lightbox – a device that mimics sunshine — will suppress your brain’s secretion of melatonin, regulate your circadian rhythm, and overall help you feel more awake and alert.
According to studies, light therapy has shown to be effective in about 85% of SAD cases. In fact, it was concluded that 53.3% of individuals with wide-range SAD went into full remission with light therapy and, of those studied, 43% with moderate to severe SAD symptoms went into remission.
In general, it’s required that a lightbox should generate 10 000 lux and emit blue or white light for it to be effective. Further, scientists recommend 30 minutes of exposure every day.
That said, it’s important to talk with your doctor or therapist about the correct dosage of light, given that it will stimulate your circadian rhythm.
6. Dawn Simulators
Have you ever heard of a dawn simulator? What’s essentially a peaceful alarm clock, a dawn simulator gradually produces light in the mornings to wake you up in the style of the sun.
Dawn simulators use full-spectrum, sun-mimicking lights to help you wake up gradually, restore your circadian rhythm, and stop the flow of melatonin –crucial components of SAD.
I’d take this over a beeping alarm clock any day!
7. Vitamin D Supplements
Vitamin D is one of the most common supplements to take for combating seasonal affective disorder.
When exposed to sunlight, your body naturally makes vitamin D, but during the long dreary days of winter, this vitamin’s prevalence in your body can drop pretty low. According to the National Library of Medicine, there is a direct link between vitamin D levels and seasonal depression, as well as in the prevention of some chronic illnesses.
Of course, talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet, especially if you’re on any additional medications.
Thanks for reading! Seasonal Affective Disorder is something that affects millions of people and that should be talked about openly and honestly. Have any questions? Leave them in the comments below!