September 22nd marked the beginning of Fall, although its effects may have been felt prematurely as the days rapidly transitioned into nights. With shorter days, longer nights, and mornings that are accompanied with crisp puffs of air, people are trading in their flip flops for insulated footwear. Some are elated by the changing of leaves and dropping temperatures that follow shortly after. But not everyone shares in this elation. Many others witness the dying leaves, dark days and cold air with a sense of grim distress.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), characterized as a depressive disorder with seasonal patterns, is said to affect a good chunk of the population during the fall and winter months. These symptoms delineate more than your typical “winter blues” and warrant attention as we bid adieu to sweet, sweet summertime. It is normal to feel less energy and increased sleepiness during the fall and winter seasons due to changes in light that affect circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm refers to the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, hence, when the sun rises your body is roused from slumber and vice versa when the sun sets. Longer stretches of darkness will send signals to your brain and body for sleep, and increased drowsiness is a natural consequence. Overtime, people naturally adjust to these changes and depression does not occur. However, if you or a loved one is exhibiting signs and patterns of the symptoms described below, it may indicate a presentation of SAD and warrants reaching out to a mental health professional.
General feelings of sadness are part of the human condition. The difference between these normal emotions and SAD lie in the timing, frequency and severity of symptoms. For most people, SAD symptoms appear around the fall and winter months, but for others, the disorder manifests in the spring and summertime. Symptoms of SAD include;
- Depression, which occurs at the beginning of a season, that dissipates when the season comes to an end. Year-round feelings of low mood can indicate a more serious concern of chronic depression.
- Feelings of depression for a 2-year period, manifesting during seasonal shifts more often than not.
- Feeling depressed, hopeless, loss of interest, difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
- For seasonal winter depression, things like low energy, over sleeping, weight gain, craving of carbohydrates, and social isolation are often present.
- For seasonal summer depression lack of sleep, weight loss, agitation, anxiety, and restlessness are key indicators.
Things this year may get a little extra challenging, being that those affected with SAD have a global pandemic slapped on top. The winter months already squash plans of getting outside – so how do we manage feelings which may seem a little heavier this year?
It’s important to note that SAD, just as the name suggests, is seasonal. This means that preventative measures can be put in place to preemptively manage unpleasant feelings and behaviors. Common tactics for SAD includes;
- Light therapy: This has been shown to be one of the most widely used treatments for SAD. Prevention includes sitting in front of a light box for 20-60 minutes at the beginning of the fall to help regulate the body’s natural circadian (sleep-wake) cycle.
- Talk therapy: As with other depressive disorders, speaking with a mental health professional may alleviate feelings of depression and allow for insight into behaviors associated with depression.
- Medication: SAD is hypothesized to be connected with serotonin, therefore it may be time to speak with a doctor about starting on a medication to regulate the body’s production of serotonin.
- Pleasant activity scheduling: as the name suggests, planning out enjoyable activities each day can have a positive effect on mood and assumes that by doing something, we may feel something. It can be as simple as giving a friend a phone call or watching a favorite movie.
There are several tips and tricks to noticing and alleviating SAD not mentioned in this blog post. Experimenting with what works is crucial to knowing how to mitigate feelings of depression. Be curious about the things that help and recognize the warning signs if it’s time to reach out to a mental health professional and schedule an appointment. Winter may be coming but that doesn’t mean depression has to follow suit.
– Malory Dahl, MA, CSAC