Do you ever feel sad when winter is coming? Well so did John Snow, but he probably had different reasons than we do, like evil witches, looney girlfriends, and battle fatigue. For us, it’s often the holidays that bring about the blues; but there is another phenomenon that occurs frequently. Being sad during the winter months can also be part of an actual depressive disorder known as Seasonal Affective Disorder–or, you guessed it–SAD. A closer look at this disorder can give some insight about how to navigate the symptoms.
SAD is a condition that occurs each year around the time the seasons change in preparation for the long, cold, dark winter months. People who have this condition may notice changes in their mood, sleep patterns, energy levels, appetite changes and weight fluctuation. These changes are a result of a specific type of depression that sets in during the winter. Some people may have this condition during the summer months, but this is less common. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about 5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience SAD and it lasts about 40 percent of the year. The APA explains that SAD is a result of a “biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in the winter. As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. SAD is more common in people living far from the equator where there are few daylight hours in the winter,” (Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD, 2021).
SAD is more than just feeling down or having the Winter Blues. People who actually have this disorder can feel depressed, lose interest in social events or even their family and friends. They may struggle with fatigue or feeling restless with no purpose, and a lack of concentration. This can make them feel guilty or worthless. Severe cases of this disorder can result in suicidal thinking.
Ways to treat this disorder are similar to how Major Depressive Disorder is treated. Using psychotherapy, or combination of medication and therapy are common. Some therapists may use light therapy to improve symptoms. Light therapy involves using a specific type of light for a set period of time each day. This can affect sleep patterns, however, so it is a good idea to do this under the guidance of a behavioral health professional. Other treatment includes behavior approaches such as increasing physical activity, improving nutrition, and socializing. These activities are simple, but hard to do when you have SAD. A therapist can help you overcome barriers to make these tasks more doable.
So if you begin to feel a drop in your mood and energy around the fall and winter, start with your doctor as there are medical conditions that can mirror the symptoms of SAD. If there are no medical explanations, then it is a good time to consult a mental health therapist to see what treatment options would work best for you. You can also do simple things such as taking a walk when the sun is out, reaching out to friends even when you don’t want to, picking up a new hobby, or creating new routines that you enjoy. Getting ahead of the problem before it gets too big is the key.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD. (2021). American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder