Imagine a place where the sun sets one day in late November and doesn’t come back up for a full two months. This is reality in parts of Alaska and Norway. But if you’re one of the millions of people affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly abbreviated SAD), it’s nightmare fuel.
As the clocks turn back and the leaves begin tumbling from the trees, many experience the onset of “winter blues.” We start to feel sluggish, moody, and hungry for carbs. That’s not abnormal, but SAD takes it to the next level. Persistent low mood, lethargy, social withdrawal, and feelings of hopelessness are common in those affected by SAD. Most people with SAD begin to experience symptoms in fall, continuing through winter and dissipating in spring.
If you notice significant changes in your mood or behavior when the seasons change, don’t brush it off as simply a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own. There are treatments available to help keep your mood steady throughout the year.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of SAD?
Acting like a bear is the biggest sign. Bears stuff their faces with all their favorite foods during fall to increase body fat so they can survive winter. Kind of like how we humans tend to increase our consumption of carbs and sugars before (and often throughout) winter. Then, as fall turns to winter, bears head to their dens to hibernate, basically sleeping all the way to spring. How often do you feel the urge to curl up under a blanket mountain and sleep away the cold and darkness?
Symptoms usually start in late fall or early winter and dissipate as the days grow longer in spring. Sometimes symptoms start out mild and become more severe as the darkness of winter fully descends.
Other symptoms of SAD include:
What Causes SAD?
SAD is more common in people who live farther north, where there are fewer hours of daylight in winter. For example, people living in New England are more likely to experience SAD than those living in Florida. But why do some people in, for example, Alaska do just fine in winter, while some people in, say, Miami experience SAD? Short answer: We don’t know. But researchers have a few theories.
Reduced Serotonin - People with SAD may have reduced levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Reduced sunlight can cause a further drop in serotonin, which then triggers depression.
Increased Melatonin - People with SAD may produce too much melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. This can increase sleepiness (they literally bottle and sell melatonin as a sleep aid).
Vitamin D Deficiencies - Through the magic of science, our bodies absorb sunlight through the skin and turn it into vitamin D, which helps promote serotonin activity. What happens when we’re inside all winter or layering heavy coats, scarves, mittens, snuggies, and whatever else we can find to protect ourselves from the cold? Vitamin D deficiencies.
Circadian Rhythm Issues - In spring 2021, 15 people volunteered to spend 40 days in a cave with no sunlight. When they were told the 40 days were up and it was time to come back to the surface, most thought it had only been about 30 days. In other words, their circadian rhythms, or internal clocks, got all out of whack. While seasonal changes in daylight aren't as severe, they can still disrupt our normal daily rhythms.
How Is SAD Treated?
There are a number of treatments for SAD, so it’s important to experiment and find the one that works best for you.
Light Therapy - With this treatment, you sit in front of a very bright light box (about 20 times brighter than normal indoor lights) every morning for 30-45 minutes from fall to spring. While some people don’t enjoy squinting into the equivalent of a blinding fluorescent light first thing in the morning, many people find that it reduces their SAD symptoms within just a few days. The thought behind this treatment is that the light mimics natural outdoor light, giving you an extra boost of “sunlight” that can cause changes in serotonin and melatonin levels.
Vitamin D - Since many people with SAD have a vitamin D deficiency, taking vitamin D as a supplement can help improve their symptoms. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to determine if you would benefit from vitamin D supplements.
Psychotherapy - Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to help reduce SAD symptoms. It typically involves a process called behavioral activation to help people identify and engage in enjoyable activities that reduce depression. It also focuses on replacing negative thoughts about winter (e.g., everything is cold and dark and awful) with more positive thoughts (e.g., hot chocolate is delicious).
Antidepressants - Since SAD is associated with reduced serotonin levels, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may help. It takes several weeks for antidepressants to take full effect and you may have to try a few different types before you find the one that works best for you, but this option is especially useful if symptoms are severe.
How Can You Reduce SAD Symptoms?
In addition to the above treatments, you can do a few things to help minimize the symptoms of SAD.
Let the Sunshine In - You know how you’ll almost always find cats cozily curled up in a beam of sunlight during winter? Pretend you’re a cat. Open your blinds or curtains, sit near windows, and absorb as much sunlight as you can.
Get Outside - Yes, it’s as cold as a polar bear’s toenails, but even on cloudy days outdoor light can help. So throw on your warmest coat and go for a walk. Pro Tip: Find a greenhouse in your area (check botanical gardens and retail plant stores) and spend some time basking in the warm sunshine amid the beautiful plants.
Socialize - It’s so easy to cancel plans and simply stay in your bed cave all day, but friends are great for making us laugh and lifting our moods. Invite a friend to explore a greenhouse with you and you can knock out two birds with one stone.
Exercise Regularly - If this tip elicits the most bone-deep weary groan from you, you’re not alone. Even if you like exercising, it can be difficult to find motivation to do it in winter. Enter bed workouts. Next time you’re struggling to get out of bed, try just lifting your leg up and down or pulling your knees to your chest a few times. You may not get super buff, but the point is really just to get some movement going. There are tons of yoga moves you can do while lying down as well.
Eat a Vegetable Or Two - It can be tough to get your five to nine servings of fruit and veggies any day of the year, but it’s especially hard during candy cane season. But winter is also soup season and you can get a ton of veggies into just one soup. Bonus: Since soup is a liquid you can also pat yourself on the back for staying hydrated.
Get Creative - All the extra time spent inside is the perfect chance to find a new creative hobby. Write moody poems about the darkness of winter, get some indoor plants and learn to care for them, or cut pictures out of magazines and create collages of summery scenes.
Take a Trip - If possible, take a winter vacation to somewhere warm. It doesn’t have to be an all-inclusive resort vacation to some Caribbean island. It can simply be a road trip south (it’s less than six hours to Florida from Charlotte).
Embrace Hygge Life - Hygge is a Danish word that describes that cozy, content feeling you get while enjoying simple pleasures such as watching a fire burn down or cozying up with someone to watch a movie. So put on your warmest sweater, make yourself a warm cup of tea, light some candles, and curl up with a good book (or binge-worthy show).
Get Support If You Need It
It’s invaluable to feel supported when coping with seasonal depression. Even though it only occurs during a few months of the year, it’s just as serious as “normal” depression. If you need help getting through this tough season, try talking to a qualified therapist. Psychology for All may be able to help. Fill out our application and see if you qualify for free therapy in Charlotte, NC.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.