Do you happen to find yourself struggling to keep your spirits up during the holiday season? Do you have a much harder time getting out of bed in the winter? Are the long nights and short days making you feel more tired, less active, and generally far less able to enjoy the colder months? Have you never really gotten the appeal of the holidays or usually feel more anxious or sad than happy during these colder times? You’re not alone. You may be one of the millions across the United States with seasonal pattern depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The good news is that there are many ways to combat seasonal affective disorder as it occurs during the fall time.
Joy For Some, But Not For All
Despite the festive significance that the holiday season holds in most families’ hearts, the majority of Americans actually report feeling significantly more anxious and far more stressed during the winter months than any other period of the year. It’s not really a time for joy or a time for cheer for most people, it seems.
Financial stress is one of the primary reasons the holidays are significantly harder for people to deal with, in addition to familial obligations, time crunch, and the physical wear-and-tear of dropping temperatures and winter woes.
The further north you go, the more the problem becomes apparent. Snow and sleet aside, northern winters mean lower temperatures, even longer nights, and even less vitamin D.
So how can you manage the seasonal blues? Let’s find out.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder, meaning it is a condition characterized by symptoms of depression. As such, it’s also called a form of depression, and is more commonly known as winter depression or, in rarer cases, summer depression.
A person with seasonal affective disorder is explicitly affected by the change in season, regardless of whether that change is mostly physiological (temperature-mediated pain and arthritis, allergies, vitamin D deficiency) or social (family gatherings or lack thereof, winter isolation, financial worry).
That means that it cannot refer to an episode of depression in someone who is otherwise also depressed in other seasons of the year, or for a different reason (such as premenstrual dysphoria or post-partum/peri-partum depression).
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are largely the same as other types of depression, such as major depressive disorder or dysthymia. The main characteristic difference is the cause and context of the mood disorder. As such, a person with seasonal affective disorder might feel:
- Unable to enjoy old hobbies.
- Loss of joy (anhedonia).
- Struggling to get out of bed.
- Physical and mental fatigue (burnout).
- Excessive weight gain during winter.
- Difficulty concentrating on tasks.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Suicidal ideation and self-harm.
Seasonal affective disorder is an example of how depression and mental health disorders, in general, are complex and difficult to blame solely on a single vector of factors. There is more behind depression than its pure neurological or psychological causes.
These disorders are always caused by a combination of different factors, an all-of-the-above mixture of risk factors that may affect a person’s mood and behavior and create a vicious emotional cycle that can be extraordinarily difficult to escape without support.
How to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you or a loved one are struggling, here are a few ways you can combat seasonal affective disorder during the fall months.
1. Prioritize Outdoor Time
Winter strolls can be beautiful if the weather permits it. Taking every opportunity you can get to spend a little time amid nature in the fall months can be a great way to combat seasonal affective disorder and for your mental health. Forest walks and nature strolls have a measurable effect on the human psyche, and time spent outdoors can help you store up on crucial vitamin D through sunlight exposure.
Outdoor time is also a great opportunity to get moving! Temperature is one of the reasons the winter months can be so grueling, and physical activity is one of the only ways we can combat this and maintain our body’s healthy core temperature. Just be sure to layer up extensively and wear winterproof clothing!
2. Cut Down on Screen Time and Improve Sleep
Ironically, one of the reasons why people oversleep in the fall or winter months is because their sleep schedule has been thrown off balance by the change in seasons, beginning with the shift in Daylight Savings and onwards.
As sunset draws ever closer to the early afternoon, we lose all sense of time after the sun has gone and begin spending much more time staying awake than we should. This can lead to a lower quality of overall sleep and a need to oversleep to compensate.
Maintain your sleep schedule regardless of the whims of the night sky by maintaining your body’s natural circadian rhythm. Pick a set time every night and cut off all screen time about an hour or two beforehand.
Use whatever method you prefer to improve your sleep rituals – whether it’s a soothing music playlist, essential oils, or a nice warm shower. Then, when the next morning rolls around, try to stick to your schedule by getting up and starting a consistent morning ritual to complement your sleep ritual – the same breakfast, the same coffee, and the same morning activity at the same time.
Maintaining these healthy schedules and rituals, even during the holiday season, can help combat seasonal affective disorder and some of its effects.
3. Vitamin D Supplementation
Yes, vitamin D supplementation can be part of a holistic approach to treating seasonal affective disorder.
However, vitamin D alone is rarely the answer, and it should be part of a larger, comprehensive treatment plan that includes an improved diet and more access to sunlight. Even if vitamin D itself doesn’t help, it’s still a healthy habit to pick up if you’re generally sunlight deprived.
4. A Balanced Diet Over the Holidays
Overeating is another common reason people feel sluggish and guilty over the holidays. While you shouldn’t deprive yourself of a little holiday fun, if you find yourself binge eating and regretting it every single time the holidays roll around, consider a healthier approach to your festivities.
Lower your portion sizes, try healthier alternatives, and reduce the number of casual sweets and eggnog around the house.
5. Prone to Allergies at Home?
With the colder months come a host of unique challenges, including mold, dust, and a few other allergens. If you frequently feel sniffly or physically ill during the fall and winter months, consider having an expert go over your home and search for potential sources of mold or to shore up your insulation.
If you’re trying to save on heating costs, better insulation goes a long way, and it’s better for the long-term health of your home and its inhabitants than letting your rooms get cold and moist (and moldy) over the holiday season.
Don’t Ignore the Signs
Depression is a serious condition, whether it affects you all year round or just around the holidays. Don’t ignore the signs – get help as soon as you can from friends, family, and a professional.