With temperatures dropping and the days getting darker sooner, you may find it’s affecting your mood — and you may not feel like leaving the house as much either. Maybe you think it’s just a case of winter blues. The cause might also be something a bit more serious, like seasonal affective disorder (SAD). According to the Cleveland Clinic, this condition is exactly what it sounds like, a “depression that gets triggered by a change in seasons, usually when fall starts.” And it gets worse in the winter. But, thankfully, when spring arrives, SAD typically ends.
Approximately 5% of the population suffers from SAD and it may be more common in states that experience colder, gloomier weather. For instance, some surveys found SAD prevalence to be 9.7% in New Hampshire yet only 1.4% percent in Florida. And numerous studies have found that it affects women more. Statistics aside, if you think you may suffer from SAD, there are ways to cope with it and make it more manageable. But first let’s talk about the symptoms.
“SAD is a condition that typically affects people in the colder, darker months,” Dr. Bradley Nelson of DiscoverHealing.com, and author of “The Emotion Code”, tells TZR in an email. “Symptoms include sadness, moodiness, and a lack of energy that begin in the fall and continue through winter.” Raina Wadhawan, Ed.M, LMHC, and licensed psychotherapist at TherapyWithRaina.com, agrees that there are certain signs you can watch out for. “Common symptoms of major depressive episodes that occur in a seasonal pattern include fatigue, depressed or low mood, hypersomnia, overeating, low motivation, loss of interest in activities, and changes in weight,” she tells TZR in an email.
Gail Saltz MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the “How Can I Help?" podcast from iHeartRadio, also weighs in. An indicator of SAD can be if you have feelings of sadness, emptiness, and numbness, or high irritability for much of the day every day for several weeks, she tells TZR in an email. And these feelings tend to occur at the same time of year for more than one year in a row, typically late fall into winter and rarely in the spring or summer. “In addition, if you’re sleeping more than usual (and feeling exhausted anyway), and eating more than usual (with a propensity to eat carbs and gain weight),” she says. Other signs include the “loss of libido, loss of concentration, the inability to take pleasure in things, and sometimes thoughts of death or suicide.”
How To Differentiate SAD From Year-Long Depression
Even though SAD occurs seasonally, how do you know if you’re suffering from it or general depression? “Timing is the essential feature that helps distinguish depression from depression with seasonal patterns,” says Wadhawan. “Individuals with SAD must meet the depressive disorder criteria symptoms for at least two years during a specific time of the year.” She notes that while depressive episodes can occur any time in the year, SAD occurs in seasonal patterns. “Additionally, the seasonal depressive episodes must outweigh the non-seasonal depressive episodes.”
“Winter blues,” on the other hand, is a mental state defined by feelings of sadness and fatigue during the coldest and darkest months of the year. “It is important to note that “winter blues” is not SAD,” Wadhawan says. “SAD is more severe and debilitating.”
How Someone Is Diagnosed With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Wadhawan says that if you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, see a mental health professional for a thorough evaluation. “Your clinician will explore and identify your symptoms of major depression, durations of the symptoms, and frequency of the episodes before making diagnoses,” she explains. Dr. Fumi Stephanie Hancock, PsychDNP, founder of POB Psychiatry and the author of 24 self-help books, treats many cases of SAD. She, too, says that if you don’t feel better or your symptoms get worse, see a doctor and get professional help. “Some people need antidepressants and/or psychotherapy during the fall and winter months to help them feel better,” she tells TZR in an email. “Remember, getting help is a sign of strength and is necessary for a lot of people.”
Some Ways To Combat SAD
Saltz says there are several self-soothing methods you can implement if you have SAD, including 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week, talking to others for social support, journaling your feelings, and meditation. “But if it’s clinically significant depression, it needs treatment with psychotherapy, possibly medication, and possibly light box therapy,” she adds. “The latter can be done on your own, but you should be screened to make sure light box therapy is safe for you and that you get a true therapeutic lightbox and directions for use.”
If you’re not familiar with light box therapy, it’s a type of light that mimics outdoor light and can help lift your mood — especially if you’re not getting outdoors much or are living in a darker climate. Since light boxes are not approved or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for SAD treatment, it’s helpful to discuss getting one with a mental health professional.
Speaking of light, Nelson suggests trying to get as much natural light as possible. “Lighten up,” he says. “Try to get outside as often as you can to soak up more light when the weather permits. Try taking a walk every day that you’re able to, keep window shades open, and set your workstation up near a window if you can.” Like Saltz, Nelson says exercising regularly can help, too. Although sticking to a workout routine in the winter may be a challenge, the benefits will be worth it. “It’ll increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can help fight off seasonal sadness,” he notes. “So get moving today, whether it’s a walk around the block, a virtual yoga class, or a hike in the mountains. Any form of exercise will do the trick.”
On a related note, Nelson says someone with SAD can try to exercise their brain, as well — by (re)balancing their energy with energy healing. “Releasing emotional baggage that may be holding you back is another great way to prevent the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or at least reduce their severity,” he says. “[This can help you] let go of those emotions and create more space for joy.”
Another way to boost your mood if you’re experiencing seasonal affective disorder is to eat healthy. Research shows that there is a correlation between what you eat and your mood. “Healthy nutrition is an important part of holistic healing for SAD,” says Nelson. “Choose recipes that contain natural mood boosters, such as dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds, fish, and avocados.”
Hancock agrees with Nelson and says to make sure to eat a healthy diet filled with nutrient-rich foods that help your body function optimally. Avoiding alcohol is helpful, too. “It might be tempting to want to unwind with a beer or glass of wine at the end of the day, but alcohol is a downer and will only make your depression worse,” she says. “Stick to water as much as possible.”
Vitamin D supplements are another effective way to treat SAD. “Many people who experience depression from SAD also have lower vitamin D levels,” Hancock says. “Your doctor can do a simple blood test to determine your levels. Adding a vitamin D supplement is both easy and inexpensive, and has helped many people feel better. Your doctor can best advise you on how much you need to take.”
Adding more color to your workspace or home environment can also be helpful if you have SAD. “When you can, add bright vibrant colors to your space,” says Hancock. “For example, you could paint an accent wall a bright orange or yellow, decorate with a color pallet with bright and cheerful colors, and also wear colorful clothing.”
Additionally, Hancock suggests getting out of your current climate and heading south. “Make sure and use any paid time off and think about heading south for a break,” she says. “The days are a little longer with more sunlight, and the weather is much warmer, which will help relieve some of your depression. Walking around on the beach vs. being stuck indoors will definitely help improve how you feel.”
And, finally, getting excited about other things in life can help alleviate SAD symptoms. “We know that SAD comes about in certain people with a deficiency of certain brain chemicals, like serotonin,” says Hancock. “You can naturally boost serotonin by making sure all areas of your life are going well. Are you happy with your career? Are your personal relationships healthy and thriving? Are you excited about the future? Getting these parts of your life in order will help combat SAD.”