As we enter the colder months, with the days getting shorter and nights coming quicker, some of us find that we’re more tired than usual, are generally grumpy and feel out of it and spacey. Maybe you’re feeling less excited about or interested in things that you normally love. We often chalk it up to that melancholy of another summer ending and another year coming to a close, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
While the pandemic and its toll on our collective and individual mental health is a part of the equation in 2020, these feelings are also potentially mixing with the other extremely common fall and winter mental health condition: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is four times more likely to strike women than men, according to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry. A whopping four to six percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, while up to 20 percent more may suffer from a milder form of the winter blues. And if you live in the northern latitudes, you are eight times more likely to be affected by SAD than if you live in sunnier regions.
What are the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Are you feeling:
- Unable to concentrate?
During these bouts with depression in the winter, people dealing with it tend to eat more and exercise less. They often have symptoms such as extreme fatigue and trouble falling asleep, or sleeping more often.
Several factors are thought to be connected to seasonal affective disorder, including a disturbance of your body’s internal clock, which tells you when it is time to be asleep and when it is time to be awake. Fewer daylight hours during the winter can also upset this clock, also known as circadian rhythms.
SAD is caused by the brain not receiving enough daylight which is needed to trigger serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood.
“Often the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function effectively at home or work, not just make them uncomfortable,” says says Cort Christie of Alaska Northern Lights.
In his book, Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, author Norman E. Rosenthal outlines the signs to look for if you need to seek medical help:
- Your functioning is significantly impaired. For example: You have difficulty completing tasks that were easier before, you’re falling behind with bills and chores, you make mistakes more often or take longer to finish projects or you tend to withdraw from loved ones.
- You feel considerably depressed. You feel sad more often than not, you feel guilty or hopeless about the future, you have negative thoughts about yourself that you don’t have at other times of the year.
- Your physical functions are greatly disrupted. During the winter months, you sleep more or have a hard time getting up in the morning, if you’d rather stay in bed all day or if your eating habits have changed.
How to cope with your SAD
Approximately 85 percent of SAD cases benefit from exposure to bright light therapy, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Patients are advised to sit near full-spectrum light boxes, which can simulate sunshine. This treatment seems to work especially well if done for 30 minutes at a time, preferably in the early morning, according to author and SAD specialist Dr. Norman Rosenthal. Daily exposure to light boxes that provide 2,500 to 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) is recommended. Researchers at Harvard reported that remission from SAD is twice as likely if this light therapy is also adjusted to your own melatonin rhythms.
Studies have also found that cells in the retina are particularly sensitive to blue light, suggesting that this wavelength may powerfully affect circadian rhythms. Researchers are investigating whether blue light might provide the same benefit as white light but with less exposure time.
Medication and supplements
General medications used to treat moderate depression are sometimes indicated, as are doses of melatonin — but make sure you talk with your doctor about what is the right treatment combo for you.
What are some other ways to prepare for SAD?
- Identify enjoyable activities that you can get involved in during the cold months.
- Avoid spending a lot of time in bed and isolating yourself.
- Be mindful of your negative attitudes and thoughts about winter and try to challenge them.
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A version of this story was published November 2013.
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