SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
10 Ways to Ease Seasonal Sadness
They say that, in these parts, January reports the highest number of suicides and newly documented cases of depression. Living in Manitoba now, I can certainly understand why.
Stark, skeletal trees dot the snow-suffocated landscape for what seems like an eternity. It’s easy for the brain to lapse into what is medically known as “seasonal affective disorder” or s.a.d. How appropriate.
Fluctuations in weather and limited daylight, during seasonal shifts, may cause the body to falter in its clock-work routines, causing imbalances.
Sudden and abrupt changes in temperature can make it difficult for the body to adapt. And this, in turn, may place extra strains on it.
The first step in addressing these symptoms, if you experience them, is by understanding what they are, what causes them and how this all happens.
WHAT IS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered a type of depression that has been associated, in studies, with a biochemical imbalance in the brain. One that seems to be triggered by fewer hours of daylight and even less exposure to sunlight.
As natural light wanes, some people begin to experience a shift in their circadian rhythm (or body clock) that may cause them to feel a disruption in their daily routine.
It can start with something as simple as waking up in the morning, in total darkness. Rather than rising shortly after the sun.
It seems to affect women more than men. And is more common in those living farther from the equator, where daylight lasts anywhere from a short 8 hours to none at all, nearest the poles.
Feelings of sapped energy and moodiness typically fade with the darkness, in spring. But, what can we do to ease these feelings that drag us down? What exactly is happening to us?
WHAT CAUSES SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?
We’ve talked about our sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. But what are our brains actually doing to make us feel this way?
Aside from our body clocks getting thrown off, there are two specific hormones we all have. The functions of which get all out of whack when it gets dark early and we still have stuff to do.
The human body has adapted to utilize these hormones, over hundreds of thousands of years, for very practical purposes. These are melatonin and serotonin.
- Melatonin – When our eyes no longer detect daylight (in other words, it’s nighttime), our brains produce this hormone so that we can have a sound and restorative sleep.
When daylight is detected again (morning), the brain ceases that production, allowing us to be awake and alert during the course of our day.
- Serotonin – This hormone regulates mood, cognition, reward, learning and memory. Less sunlight per day reduces our body’s production of serotonin, creating feelings of instability in these areas.
Serotonin function also gets a boost from Vitamin D. Which we also get less of on shorter days.
WHO EXPERIENCES SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?
According to statistics gathered by the American Academy of Family Physicians, 4 to 6 percent of the population may experience severe bouts of seasonal affective disorder. Another 10 to 20 percent may show milder symptoms.
As mentioned, 75% of all documented cases have been women (researchers have yet to determine why that is), with the earliest cases showing in young adulthood.
People who suffer from other forms of depression or bipolar disorder are at increased risk during the darker months. These conditions are already associated with the disruption of serotonin and melatonin production.
But, moodiness in winter doesn’t necessarily mean you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder. You may be simply experiencing a temporary chemical imbalance triggered by shorter days.
So, what are the symptoms of S.A.D.? What should we look for?
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS of SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?
If winter weather has got you down and you want to know if it’s, perhaps, seasonal affective disorder, be mindful and pay close attention to your body. Is it a physical sensation or an emotional one? Maybe both?
The following are common symptoms of S.A.D.:
- A loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- Social withdrawal (even in a virtual space)
- Decreased ability to focus or concentrate
- Chronic fatigue
- Changes in appetite
Seasonal affective disorder can actually occur in every season of the year. With different symptoms manifesting in shorter vs longer days.
FALL and WINTER S.A.D (SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER)
FALL and WINTER S.A.D (SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER)
S.A.D. affects people most often in seasons with shorter days. Which, in the northern hemisphere, is October to March. In the southern hemisphere, farther from the equator, these season-specific symptoms can occur in people from April to September.
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy
SPRING and SUMMER S.A.D (SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER)
Less often, longer days can trigger the reverse of those symptoms experienced in darker months. Some studies have shown that those living in areas with consistent, extreme summer temperatures are more likely to experience the following symptoms when the days are longer rather than be affected by winter SAD:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Agitation or anxiety
- Increased irritability
WAYS to EASE the SYMPTOMS of SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
While there is currently no known remedy for seasonal bouts of depression, there are steps that you can take to ease the symptoms you’re experiencing. Keeping them from becoming more severe over time.
Another plus? Once you’re able to identify symptoms that recur every year, you can take steps to prevent them before they start.
For more severe symptoms, a chat with your doctor, before symptoms start can result in more support and medical assistance in alleviating symptoms. So, you can actually enjoy the season.
Read on to learn 10 different, and often very effective, ways to ease and prevent seasonal affective disorder symptoms.
1. INCREASING INDOOR DAYLIGHT EXPOSURE
There are several ways you can get a little more sun (even on a cloudy day). By doing so, your body will produce more natural vitamin D and give your serotonin levels a much-needed boost.
If possible, move your workspace near a window. If working from home, near a window, or under a skylight.
If you have a sunroom, spend more time there. Working, reading or enjoying hobbies.
Clear pathways and entryways of winter snow on sunny days
If possible, remove screens from west or north-facing windows to allow maximum light.
2. GET REGULAR EXERCISE
Moving your body through exercise is a simple, yet powerfully effective way to increase serotonin levels and other beneficial biochemicals in the brain.
When we exercise or do other things that are good for us, our brains release endorphins (happiness hormones) as a reward for doing those things. How’s that for self-care motivation?
Research has shown that exercise may even treat the mild to moderate depression, that seasonal affective disorder can cause, as effectively as antidepressant medication. In more severe cases, it may help medication work more effectively.
If you live in a temperate climate region, going for a brisk walk outside, even on a cloudy day, will provide enough daylight exposure to help ward off those winter blues.
If you live in a harsh winter region, doing your exercise close to a light-filled window can accomplish the same.
3. USE a LIGHT BOX or DAWN SIMULATOR
The use of a light therapy box can be very beneficial, as they mimic daylight. Especially if you happen to live far away from the equator where winter daylight is sparse.
The light from these boxes has been shown to have the same serotonin-boosting effects on the brain as natural sunlight does.
Light visors can also be found online. These claim to be more convenient than having to sit in one place for 30 minutes, but these have yet to be proven effective.
Besides, it’s easy to have a lightbox shining on you while you’re brushing your teeth, brushing your hair and doing your make-up in the morning.
Dawn simulators are a second, proven-beneficial option. Rather than imitating daylight, though, these devices simulate the rising sun. With your brain responding, in kind. Melatonin production slows and serotonin increases.
Ultraviolet and full-spectrum lights claim to be helpful with seasonal affective disorder.
But, in reality, the kind of light waves that emit from these devices are simply not the ones that affect melatonin and serotonin production. It would be like laying in a tanning bed to cure the winter blues. Not effective.
4. SET REALISTIC GOALS
When experiencing a downward mood in winter, it’s important to give yourself a break. Be empathetic and kind to what your mind and body are going through. It will reward you for it.
One solid way to do that is by setting realistic goals. Now isn’t the best time to be overly ambitious.
Naturally, we find ourselves with a million things to do in the course of a day. The seasons don’t seem to change that. But, we can.
Prioritize your to-do list into several small ones and know that it’s perfectly ok to move things to the next day if you need to. Even the next week.
Many people who experience seasonal affective disorder find that they have more energy and feel more productive in the mornings, during this time.
If this is you, simply move the day’s “heavy-lifting” to the top of your list. Get those things out of the way, first. After you’ve had your coffee, of course.
5. SPEND TIME with FAMILY and FRIENDS
Humans have amazing imaginations. But, during emotional downtimes (as with seasonal affective disorder), our imaginations can distort reality a bit. Often making us feel worse instead of better.
I can’t stress enough how important social support is when we’re feeling down. Family, friends, even the guy who comes to clear your driveway of snow, can act as a productive soundboard in even the shortest of conversations.
Go hang out with other humans. Or just call them, text them, message them, whatever. Just share how you’re feeling and let the people, who love and care about you, help steer you back to center.
6. ENGAGE in MIND-BODY ACTIVITIES
This is one that I do every day. Winter blues or not. Why? Because meditation stimulates the function of the pineal gland in our brains, creating more melatonin (remember that?), allowing us to relax. Meditation also increases serotonin levels. Bingo.
Activities that encourage a healthy mind-body connection, help us stay focused on the present. And not get wrapped up in anxiety that is driven by past or future events.
Yoga, tai chi, guided imagery and music therapy (my hubby’s favorite), even simply caring for your houseplants in winter, all contribute to that mind-body connection in a healthy, effective way. And hold the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder at bay.
7. DO THINGS that YOU ENJOY
There’s no forcing fun. It’s just something that comes naturally when we’re doing something we enjoy. But, picking up a leisurely project and using it to distract our minds, is something we can do. How much better you feel once you start may surprise you.
Hobbies – These can keep you in the moment by focusing your attention on activities you enjoy. Helping to neutralize any stress or anxiety resulting from past or future events.
Winter Gardening – Studies have shown that when we interact with plants, biochemicals in our brains are released that slow our heart rates to healthy levels, minimize anxiety and improve focus and concentration.
Binge-Watching a Comedy Series – Laughing increases your intake of oxygen. Which stimulates healthy heart activity, lung and muscle function and increases the production of those all-important happy hormones in the brain.
8. IMPROVE YOUR NUTRITION
It’s time to break out those salad recipes! Eating green, leafy vegetables can markedly decrease seasonal affective disorder symptoms. The darker green, the better. These foods are rich in folate which helps our brains function more efficiently.
Fruits such as apples, bananas, citrus, grapefruit and fresh berries can do the same. Proper nutrition encourages a balance of hormones in the brain, like melatonin and serotonin.
When we focus on maintaining a healthy diet (cooking is a great hobby!) we’re ensuring ourselves fewer mood fluctuations and increased moments of peace.
9. AVOID ALCOHOL and DRUGS
Following a stressful event, how often have you thought to yourself, “(Sigh) I need a drink”. Over time, we’ve learned, by cultural example, to seek relief in alcohol and/or drugs.
While this practice may seem to calm the nerves, it only does so for a very short while.
At which point, these substances begin to significantly lower the production of certain biochemicals in the brain, like serotonin and norepinephrine, which keep us on an even keel.
When these hormones stop flowing, alcohol and drugs end up making worse that which we were trying to ease, by increasing the duration and severity of depressive episodes.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, be mindful of the potential urge to seek out these false “quick fixes”. Acknowledge it and then let it pass.
The other activities on this list will actually support the result you’re looking for, which is to feel better.
10. WHEN to SEEK MEDICAL HELP
That is, of course, unless symptoms last for longer than a couple of days at a time. Or symptoms begin to include feelings of hopelessness or worse. In which case, taking advantage of modern medical assistance is strongly encouraged.
In days past, people had no choice but to simply deal with it. But, today we’re lucky to have healthcare providers who understand the validity and difficulty of seasonal affective disorder. And know exactly how to help.
Seeking help when we need it is not, in any way, a sign of weakness. It’s a display of intelligence and an acknowledgment of the best way to resolve our medical issues.
So, if you feel you need medical help, just reach out. You’ll be very glad you did.
HOW LONG DOES S.A.D LAST?
The duration of seasonal affective disorder depends on its severity and whether or not the experienced feelings of depression are associated with a larger issue.
Mild symptoms typically last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Longer and more severe symptoms may require medical assistance and proper diagnosis. Relief follows fairly quickly, with the right treatment.
THE IMPORTANCE of SELF-CARE
With so many things on our daily to-do lists (especially in these trying times), we usually shove our own self-care to the bottom of it.
Yet, in spring, summer, autumn or winter, self-care is vitally important. We need to keep our own teacups filled and filled well.
Because it’s the overflow that we’re able to share with others. We won’t have anything to offer family, friends, co-workers and others if our own teacups are empty.
Being mindful of your own needs and taking steps to meet them, is not only intelligent, it’s empowering. It also sets a powerful and positive example for others.
Is all of this worth it? Yes. Because you’re worth it.
OF THE MIND
While in the midst of gardening, cooking and baking or working on a design project, my mind tends to wander into areas of a more social, political or personal nature. Welcome to my mental meanderings.