All You Need to Know About Seasonal Depression

You could be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder without even realizing it.

A woman experiencing depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder during Winter

The holiday season is approaching, and for those of us in the northern hemisphere, that means shorter days and colder temperatures. While we all adapt in different ways to the reduced levels of sunlight in winter, for some the change in daylight hours can be harder to cope with than it is for others.

Everyone experiences sadness from time to time, but if that sadness appears during the fall and winter months and is accompanied by other symptoms like mood swings, irritability, low energy, or anxiety, you might be experiencing a phenomenon called seasonal affective disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression that affects people during the fall and winter months when days are shorter and there is less sunlight. Serotonin, a hormone that affects mood, can diminish with the lack of sunlight, causing symptoms of depression. Experts also believe that changes to circadian rhythms due to the short amount of daylight can increase the likelihood of experiencing SAD.

Who is most affected?

Recent research shows that about 5% of Americans experience SAD, and the symptoms start manifesting during young adulthood. Studies have also revealed that seasonal depression affects women more than men, especially if immediate family members also experience the symptoms. SAD is also more common in those living in northern countries or states, where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter. And those who struggle with other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, or major depressive disorder are also more likely to develop SAD.

What are the symptoms?

SAD symptoms are similar to the signs of major depressive disorder. Those suffering may experience the following:

  • Irritability
  • Low energy
  • Oversleeping
  • Weight gain and appetite changes
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Prolonged sadness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

How is SAD treated?

Just like any mental illness, making an appointment with your physician and discussing your symptoms is a vital first step in treating seasonal depression. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medications (which have been proven to reduce the symptoms of SAD) but there are other practical steps you can take to beat the winter blues and keep your mental health in order. Here are a few:

  • Make time for exercise. Get your heart pumping to keep your mental and physical health in order. Sign up for a fitness class, go for a walk when the sun is out, or invest in an elliptical. Exercise truly is one of the best medicines for depression.

Related: How Exercise Reduces Stress and Anxiety

  • Check out light therapy. Spending more time in direct sunlight each day can help improve serotonin levels. But if you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of sunlight, it might be worth trying out basking in artificial sunlight through a light therapy lamp.
  • Make changes to your routine. Setting goals (especially small, reachable ones) each week can give you motivation to keep powering through the cold months.
  • Practice mindfulness. Focusing on the present can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression when practiced regularly.
  • Check your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is also known as the sunshine vitamin and levels in your body can drop in the winter without consistent sunlight. Low levels of this vitamin in your blood can cause fatigue, depression, and mood swings.
  • Establish a healthy sleep schedule. Your biological clock may be thrown off with the early sunsets and time changes from Daylight Saving Time. To combat the chronic fatigue that accompanies

SAD, stick to a consistent sleep schedule through the winter months, and make sure you are getting adequate amounts of sleep as well.
Seasons come and go, but if you recognize a change in how you feel during the fall and winter months, it is always a good idea to meet with your physician or mental health therapist to help get you feeling like yourself again.

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