Are you familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Even if you don’t know the name, the overarching feeling may resonate with you.
With shorter days and cooler temperatures, many people may start to feel fatigued and slightly depressed. These seasonal symptoms are indicative of the common mood disorder—a form of seasonal depression that occurs with the change of seasons, mostly in winter.
Why do some people get SAD during this time, and not others? Researchers aren’t entirely sure, but some claim it has to do with time-of-year-based changes that disrupt the circadian rhythm—also known as our sleep clock. This 24-hour clock regulates how we feel and function throughout the day, making us feel happy and alert sometimes, and down and drowsy on other occasions.
Another theory is that the winter months disrupt our hormone levels, particularly affecting serotonin and melatonin, which regulate our sleep, mood, and general well-being. According to the American Academy of Physicians, up to 20% of the population could have a mild form of SAD. Women and younger people are especially susceptible, along with anyone who lives farther from the equator. Others more likely to experience symptoms linked to SAD include those with a family history of depression or bipolar disorder.
So, is Seasonal Affective Disorder disrupting your life? Here are some of the most common symptoms:
· Depression or self-esteem issues
· Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
· Changes in weight or appetite
· Changes in sleeping pattern
· Increased irritability, anger, anxiety, or stress
· Feelings of hopelessness or despair
· Lack of energy, fatigue, or loss of libido
· Difficulty concentrating
· Physical aches or pains
· Drug use or increased alcohol consumption
SAD is different from depression due to the remission of symptoms in the spring and summer. And fortunately, the seasonal mood disorder doesn’t have to take over your life. Here are six strategies for coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder:
1. Spend time in the sun.
During the colder months, it’s important to take advantage of whatever sunlight you can get. Even if you live somewhere cold, aim to get out for at least half an hour during the day. Just bundle up, and soak up the sun when it’s brightest for the most therapeutic results.
If you’re working long hours and can’t get outside in daylight, don’t sweat it. You can invite natural light into your home simply by keeping the blinds open during the day. Your goal should be to spent time in the brightest environments possible.
2. Consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
Since low levels of vitamin D are linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder, and a 2014 study found that people who took vitamin D supplements experienced a drastic improvement in their depression, you may want to follow suit.
The truth is that reducing your symptoms may be as simple as checking your vitamin D levels and figuring out whether supplements are right for you. If you have questions, consider speaking to your doctor or a mental health professional about the best way to proceed. Otherwise, foods like oily fish and egg yolks, along with mushrooms, all have higher amounts of vitamin D.
3. Connect with loved ones.
After safely catching up with friends and family over the holidays, and diving headfirst back into reality in January, the New Year can feel isolating. It’s important, in this way, to really prioritize connecting with loved ones.
You can set up a time to play Zoom trivia on platforms like Kahoot, or a game of online Pictionary on sites such as Skribbl. Even a weekly video conference, or a virtual (or socially-distanced, depending on where you live) happy hour can help your SAD symptoms subside.
4. Maintain a schedule.
Since sleep issues are linked to SAD, keeping a consistent schedule can go a long way in alleviating symptoms. You should aim to eat around the same times each day, exercise consistently, and go to bed at a reasonable hour to improve your sleep duration and quality.
It doesn’t have to be challenging or overwhelming to maintain a schedule. Just take stock of what feels right, and try to do the things you love. Taking steps toward better well-being in this way will promote a sense of normalcy.
5. Practice opposite action.
Are you familiar with a dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skill called “opposite action”? The concept is relatively simple—and with a bit of awareness, it can be extremely effective in treating symptoms of depression or SAD.
Here’s how it works: The first step is to identify the emotion you are experiencing, whether it’s restlessness, despair, or something else. The next step is to evaluate whether the intensity and duration of the emotion aligns with the reality of the situation.
Then, based on these responses, you can decide whether it’s worth acting on the urge or doing the opposite of what your mind and body are telling you to do.
I, for instance, felt pretty down recently. I started wallowing in my feelings, stopped texting my friends and family, and wondered how long it would take people to reach out to me.
Fortunately, I came to my senses and made a conscious choice to practice opposite action. I set up a handful of social Zoom calls, FaceTimed a good friend, and spent a long weekend intermittently hiking in the fresh winter air and watching bad TV with my boyfriend, our sweet dog, and our violent kitten. (Kidding—I love both my pets equally.)
6. Speak with your doctor.
If you’ve taken the above measures and still don’t feel quite like yourself, you may want to reconnect with your doctor and discuss other alternatives. Your provider can recommend a number of helpful tips and treatment options, or offer a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist, to help you regain a sense of normalcy.
And remember, you’re not alone this time of year. SAD affects people in colder, darker climates all over the world—and symptoms typically subside in full by the time the days lengthen and temperatures rise. Chances are you’ll be happier and more productive in no time.
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