Do the “winter blues” have you down or is it something more? For most people being sad means they’ve had a bad day or something has made them upset. For people with seasonal depression, the feeling of sadness can linger and stay with them all winter long.
What is Seasonal Depression?
According to Adriana Marachlian, MD., a psychiatry resident at Lincoln Hospital in New York City, seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), “is a subtype of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) characterized by depressive/mood symptoms with a seasonal pattern. It occurs most commonly during fall [and] winter time, and it is believed to be associated with decreased exposure to sunlight during those seasons.”
Cleveland Clinic reports that SAD starts during the fall months, worsens during the winter and ends in the spring when the weather becomes nicer. According to Psychiatry.org, SAD sufferers are usually between the ages of 18 to 30.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Depression?
Mayo Clinic separates the signs and symptoms of SAD into generic symptoms and symptoms that can be predominantly seen during the fall and winter months.
Some general symptoms of SAD are losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating and having frequent thoughts of death or suicide. Seasonal symptoms include oversleeping, changes in appetite, weight gain and fatigue or lack of energy.
What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to HelpGuide.org, the main cause of SAD is believed to be the reduced amount of sunlight that a person is exposed to during the winter months. This causes their internal clock to become disrupted and can lead to feelings of depression.
Another cause of SAD is changes in serotonin and melatonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical in the brain) that affects mood. Reduced sunlight can cause these levels to drop and as a result may trigger depression. A change in season can also lead to a change in melatonin levels which can affect sleep patterns. Change in sleep patterns can affect moods.
What are the risk factors of SAD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three factors that can increase a person’s chance of having SAD. These factors are having a family history of SAD, having major depression or bipolar depression and living far from the equator.
A person whose family member has had SAD or another form of depression is more likely to develop SAD themself. However, if a person already has symptoms of depression, their symptoms may worsen seasonally. Living far from the equator means there is less sunlight and as stated above, decreased exposure to sunlight is known to be one of the main causes of SAD.
While it may seem like dealing with seasonal depression is difficult and hopeless, there are steps a person can take to help improve their feelings and manage their SAD.
HelpGuide lists five steps that anyone can do to help improve their mood.
- Get as much natural sunlight as possible. This could mean going on walks, sitting by a window or using daylight simulation bulbs.
- Exercise regularly. Exercising can help boost feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin. It can help improve your sleep schedule and boost your mood. Aiming for 30 to 60 minutes of continuous and rhythmic exercise is best for fighting depression symptoms.
- Reach out to family and friends. While it may be hard to ask for help, it is important to be around other people. Being around people helps to boost your mood and helps manage SAD by reducing isolation time.
- Maintain a good diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day that include fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fats can help minimize mood swings.
- Take steps to deal with stress. Stress can enhance or even trigger depression. Trying to minimize stress will help to reduce SAD symptoms.
If symptoms are severe or persistent, Marachlian says the best course of action is to reach out to a medical professional for help.
“The number one piece of advice for someone experiencing these symptoms is to seek help, be it from a school counselor, a therapist, a doctor or even a crisis hotline. In general, treatment can take many forms, including increased exposure to sunlight, light therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or antidepressant medication,” Marachlian said.
“It can be difficult or feel daunting to take that first step, but getting help will always be worth it.”
You don’t have to deal with being SAD on your own. If you or someone you know is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, reach out for help.