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What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Find Out How To Avoid It This Winter

By Karen Tietjen
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When the days get darker and the weather gets colder, do you begin to feel overwhelmed by the gloom? If the dreary days of winter make you want to hibernate for weeks on end, it may be more than just a case of the blues. It's very possible you are dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder that's characterized by depression corresponding with the seasons.

Connie Yip, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, says that, "Most people with SAD notice a 'winter depression' in the fall or winter months, which lasts until the spring or summer. How people feel literally changes with the weather; it’s seasonal. On sunny days, people with SAD can feel better and on cloudy days, they feel worse."

There are key differences between a seasonal-based mood disorder and general depression. "While there are similarities between SAD and depression, like feeling sad, having less energy to do things, being less social, [and feeling] fatigue, SAD looks different," explains Yip. "People with SAD tend to sleep more and experience a change in appetite and eating habits."

One thing to note is that this condition is actually relatively common, says Yip. In fact, according to Mental Health America, in a given year, about five percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal depression, and four out of five cases are in women.

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Los Angeles-based dance teacher Jenny Meidlinger first experienced seasonal depression symptoms when she moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City 10 years ago. "I noticed that first winter [a change in my mood]," she explains. "Then I realized into my second winter that I got really depressed again after the holidays and up until the spring."

This shift felt particularly alarming due to the fact that Meidlinger is a natural extrovert who is normally outgoing and eager to be around people. Suddenly, she found herself with very little motivation to be around people and do things — and just during a particular period of time. "Someone finally told me about SAD and said, ‘I think you have this, you should look into it,'" she says. "A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, it’s just post-holiday blues,’ but mine lasts through March — pretty much until daylight savings time in April."

But winter isn't the only season that can make people feel especially down. "SAD doesn’t only happen in the fall or winter months, it can happen in the spring and summertime too, although it’s rare," says Yip. (Also, the summer depression symptoms typically include loss of appetite and insomnia.) Another thing to note is that SAD isn't designated to specific geographical regions (although it's believed that the further you are from the equator, the more likely you are to experience it): "SAD happens in the northern and southern hemisphere, so it isn’t just about the weather," says Yip.

If you suspect you may be dealing with SAD, the first step is to get evaluated by your doctor, as they can rule out other mood disorders and give you a proper diagnosis. If you do in fact have SAD, don't fret — according to Yip, there are a number of easy-to-implement solutions including light therapy, medication, and, if needed, cognitive therapy.

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Meidlinger says, in her case, taking a vitamin D supplement (consult with your doctor first), inhaling uplifting aromatherapy oils, and heading outside when there is daylight is helpful in alleviating her SAD. She also currently lives in Southern California, which she says "has made a world of a difference" in regulating her mood. Another tried-and-true remedy has come in handy for the dancer: being around people. "I’m huge on the importance of community and teamwork," she explains. "I need the people closest to me to hold me accountable for getting out of the house and proactively doing things to get me out of those funks."

According to Yip, there are several practical tips that you can implement right at home in order to beat symptoms of SAD. While she notes that having warm, sunny weather may be the best cure (prescribed vacation, anyone?), for those who can't get away, she gives the following advice for alleviating symptoms:

  • Invest in a light therapy lamp: Purchase a light box and bask in its rays during the dark hours of the morning or late afternoon.
  • Arise with the sun: Wake up with light by pulling up the shades or switching your usual wake-up call for a sunrise-simulating alarm clock.
  • Initiate (and stick to) a bedtime routine: "Protect your sleep and practice a consistent bedtime routine," Dr. Yip suggests, adding that reading before bedtime, eliminating screen time, and/or having a cup of herbal tea are great ways to unwind.
  • Exercise: Increasing your heart rate will lead to mood-boosting effects, among other mental benefits.
  • Take prescribed medicine as directed: Dr. Yip points out that, "if you’ve met with a health care provider and have decided to take medication to help treat your SAD and for prevention, take your medication consistently." (You can also try natural mood-boosting supplements if you're wary of going the prescription route.)