Do You Get Depressed During Fall And Winter Months?
Do you wonder whether you have, or someone you love has, Seasonal Affective Disorder/ Seasonal Depression (SAD)?* Today’s blog entry will cover symptoms, background theories on what may cause seasonal depression, and some things to do that can help with SAD.
WHAT IS SEASONAL DEPRESSION/ SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER (SAD)?
Often tending to be most severe in winter months of January and February, but starting as early as September, some people experience depressive symptoms that mostly resolve or improve when the seasons change again. SAD is considered a form of depression, and common symptoms include:
- Increased fatigue or lack of energy
- Decreased or loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
- Social withdrawal
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Increased anxiety
- Increased irritability
- Increased craving for sweets and carbohydrates
- Weight gain
One would not have to have all the above symptoms in order to be considered to have SAD, and some who already deal with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder may also have a seasonal component to their moods (ie, may feel more depressed or “moody” in fall and winter months). Moreover, many can benefit from the suggestions below on how to tackle seasonal depressive symptoms even if not meeting full diagnostic criteria for SAD.
THEORIES ON WHY THERE IS SEASONAL DEPRESSION, and/or WHY SOME MOOD DISORDERS HAVE A SEASONAL COMPONENT
Shorter daylight hours and less sunlight seem to be contributors to seasonal depression. A person’s serotonin and melatonin may be off balance more in the fall and winter months; sunlight helps to regulate serotonin, and therefore a lack of sunshine may stimulate an overproduction of melatonin, which can affect sleep patterns and mood.
There are higher numbers of SAD reported in geographic areas where there is less sunlight, and more cloudy, dark, rainy, or snowy days.
THINGS THAT CAN HELP
- Soak Up The Sun –
Go outside in the morning as much as possible and preferably pretty immediately after you wake up. Even better if you can combine taking a walk while in the morning hours. During times when going outside is not possible or desirable, consider standing in front of a window for some time during daylight hours, and/or opening blinds and curtains in your home or office to allow more daylight to enter the areas you spend time in.
2. Lightbox/ Phototherapy –
Using a special kind of lamp called a lightbox can be helpful in fall and winter. Using a lightbox properly will increase the results in elevating your depressive symptoms. A lightbox is about twenty times brighter than regular indoor light bulbs, and you sit in front of it for about 30 minutes every morning during your ‘blue months’. One study showed that, “three weeks of bright light therapy using specially designed light boxes improved symptoms of depression by as much as 54% in older adults with depression” (Jennifer Warner, WebMD Health News). A lightbox does take some commitment including:
- Use daily 20-40 minutes, generally as close to the time you wake up in the morning as possible
- Finding things to do during that time for your morning routine if you don’t want to just sit in front of the lightbox – it can be while you’re on the phone, eating breakfast, etc
- Financial investment of generally $200-$350 for a quality lightbar [that will hopefully last for several years or more]
- Making sure you’re sitting at the right distance and that the light is at or above eye level
If you want to try a lightbox, here are a couple that are recommended: https://northernlighttechnologies.com/sad-light-store/boxelite-desk-lamp-2 https://northernlighttechnologies.com/sad-light-store/boxelite-desk-lamp#
3. Consult Your Doctor –
I am not a medical doctor and so therefore cannot give medical advice. Some may find improvement in their SAD symptoms by requesting bloodwork and looking for whether increased Vitamin D or B12 may be helpful during the fall and winter months. Likewise, folks who already benefit from antidepressant medication may do well to work with their doctor about whether an increase in dosage may be helpful certain months.
4. Get Regular Exercise –
Cardio-vascular/ aerobic exercise can be so helpful and important for mood symptoms, as well as for physical health overall. If weather permits, exercising outdoors in daylight hours may be especially helpful. Especially in colder, rainy, and/or snowy regions, people may feel more limited in outdoor activities, so a gym membership or classes you can do at home may be the way to go.
5. Psychotherapy Appointments –
I of course am a strong believer in and advocate for psychotherapy/ counseling, and it’s also one of the treatment recommendations for SAD, in showing to improve symptoms. Talking things through can help.
6. Socialize –
One of the symptoms of SAD is withdrawing from friends and family. Additionally, people may naturally do fewer outdoor and social activities in colder months of the year. It is important to try to stay connected. Some may benefit from joining a new club or activity, volunteering, or initiating an activity with friends, family, or neighbors. Spending too much time alone can worsen symptoms of depression and hopelessness.
7. Do Things That [At Least Used To] Make You Happy –
Loss of interest in things that used to be of interest is a symptom of SAD (as well as a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder, by the way). One remedy is to do the things you at least used to enjoy, and perhaps the enjoyable feelings will return when engaged in that activity consistently. It may take a bit of a ‘push’ to get yourself to do the things, but it’s important to do so.
ADDITIONAL READING SUGGESTIONS:
If you’re interested in additional ideas on what you can do that may improve your mood, here I’m highlighting some of my archived blog posts:
5% + 5% + 5% Happier: Small Moves That Add Up: https://hopeintherapy.com/small-moves-that-add-up/
Therapist Approved Smartphone Apps: https://hopeintherapy.com/therapist-approved-smartphone-apps/
*today’s blog entry is not meant for diagnostic purposes. If you think you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, please consult your doctor or a psychotherapist. This blog entry is for educational purposes only.