Some people thrive in winter. But many others do not due to a form of depression clinically know as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often misrepresented as the “winter blues.”
Seasonal affective disorder is a serious and unfortunately common mood disorder characterized by intense, short-term depression that peaks in the winter months, and subsides as the days get longer during springtime. It’s important to distinguish SAD from a general feeling of malaise over the colder, darker weeks of the year and to not confuse it with other mental health disorders such as major depression or bipolar disorder.
If you or a close loved one have uncharacteristically struggled both physically and emotionally over the winter – whether in recent times, or for years now – then you may be coping with seasonal affective disorder. Thankfully, there are ways to manage it, and treat this condition.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
First, it’s seasonal. Someone who is depressed year round, but experiences especially strong symptoms in the winter does not necessarily qualify for a diagnosis of seasonal affected disorder.
Second, it is more than passing sadness. Some people feel worse for wear over the holiday season, either emotionally or physically. It coincides with the flu, and dips in temperature tend to correlate with weakened immune systems. There’s often more work in anticipation for late December, and a mental slog as people return to their stations in January. These factors may contribute to the intensity of the depression, but they are not causes.
Seasonal affective disorder is more than an emotional slump. It describes a negative mental state that is debilitating and consistent throughout the season, like other forms of diagnosed depression. It is a mood disorder, and one with symptoms such as inability to get out of bed, difficulty concentrating on anything at work, and significant changes to a person’s daily habits, interests, and behavior.
Furthermore, it isn’t just a winter-related condition. Some people coping with seasonal effective disorder experience symptoms of depression predominantly during the summer months, for example. But winter depression is its most common form, as well as its most researched.
Are the Winter Blues Normal?
Surveys show that a considerable portion of Americans struggle with greater amounts of stress over the holiday season. We also know that less overall daylight can contribute to poor mood and lower mental functioning. It’s no wonder that teens struggle with winter blues even more so, as long schooldays often result in little to no time spent taking in any sunlight over the winter school months.
Some people thrive in winter. But many others do not. However, while seasonal affective disorder is often called the “winter blues”, it’s important to distinguish SAD from a general feeling of malaise over the colder, darker weeks of the year.
Don’t let winter get the best of you. If you or someone you know is experiencing physical and emotional difficulties during the winter months, it could be a sign of SAD. But there is hope. Our resources can help you effectively cope with seasonal affective disorder, and treat this condition.
How Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder Differ
Most mood disorders respond well to therapy and medication, especially antidepressants. These are a class of drug that affect a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with regulating mood, called serotonin. However, seasonal affective disorder – specifically the winter variant – uniquely benefits from a special type of treatment called light therapy.
One element of seasonal affective disorder is fewer daylight hours. While we aren’t plants, humans do benefit from some daily sunshine. Cutting down on the time we spend under the sun – especially in modern times, when we’re less inclined to be outdoors to begin with – can have a negative impact on metabolism, sleep quality, the immune system, and a person’s mood and mental state.
A special device called a light box can help individuals with seasonal affective disorder get an additional dose of ultraviolet light every morning, which has been shown to improve mood about as well as therapy in cases of SAD. Vitamin D supplementation may help as well.
While sunlight is one aspect of seasonal affective disorder, winter months are generally harder to bear, whether physically, financially, socially, or emotionally. Reasons include heating costs, holiday bills, work-related stressors, travel stress, and more. These factors can exacerbate existing causes of depression or may drive a stake into a person’s healthy coping skills and positive mental habits as the winter weeks wane on.
This often begs the question: is it depression, or is it seasonal depression? Is stress to blame, or shorter days; or, more likely, both?
In truth, the answer is often somewhere in the middle for most people. If you have a history of struggling with mood disorders, then the stresses of winter might make it a tougher season for you. If you only ever tend to feel sad over the holidays, then they might be a trigger for a traumatic memory, or a cause for seasonal depression. Or perhaps it is a combination of everything – from piling costs to longer nights, poorer sleep, and physical stressors.
Important Tips for Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder
If you have a history of struggling with depressive thoughts over the winter, or coping with seasonal affective disorder, there are a few proactive measures you can take to cope with your symptoms, in addition to getting treatment. These include:
- Taking the time to be outside more often.
- Investing in light fixtures at home that mimic the sun, with a doctor’s consultation.
- Moving your desk by a window, or requesting access to a window or balcony at work.
- Getting certain forms of winter prep done earlier in the year, to avoid the holiday rush (such as gifts, vacation plans, and greeting cards).
- Do what you need to get (and stay) active in winter.
- Don’t rely too much on comfort foods. Winter may be the season for good cooking, but many people go overboard. Portion control can help, allowing you to satisfy certain cravings without overeating.
- Sticking to your schedule! One of the biggest stressors for people with mental health issues is the fact that the end of the year and start of a new one can be a chaotic experience, full of exceptions and breaks in routine. Put your habits and routines first.
Do You Need Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Just because it might be temporary does not mean it isn’t serious. In addition to affecting millions of people, individuals coping with seasonal affective disorder are at a greater risk of developing other mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder, as well as conditions such as panic disorder, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, seasonal affective disorder can include feelings of low self-worth, and suicidal ideation.
All mental health issues deserve to be taken seriously.
If you or a loved one happens to feel significantly worse during the winter, spring, summer, or autumn months – especially if it has been a recurring pattern for some time now – professional treatment can help. In addition to light therapy, seasonal affective disorder may be treated through one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and medication.
At Amend Treatment, we offer individuals with a history of recurring mood disorders a place to seek treatment over the winter months, addressing conditions such as seasonal affective disorder, and providing access to important resources for long-term care. Contact us today, and subscribe to our newsletter in the footer below.