By: Alex DeWoskin
The shorter days and colder weather of winter can make anyone feel down. The reduced light, warmth, and color of winter can leave you feeling melancholy, irritable, or tired. But if these feelings recur each year, make it tough to function during the winter months, and then subside in spring or early summer, you may suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs at the same time each year, usually in winter.
Seasonal depression can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. You may feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love.
But no matter how hopeless you feel, there are things you can do to keep your mood and life stable throughout the year.
SAD usually begins in fall or winter when the days become shorter and remains until the brighter days of spring or early summer. Then, by spring or early summer SAD affects about 1% to 2% of the population, particularly women and young people, while a milder form of winter blues may affect as many 10 to 20 percent of people.
If some of these feelings seem to happen each year, have a real impact on your life, and improve during certain seasons, talk to your doctor, you may have seasonal affective disorder:
- Feeling like sleeping all the time, or having trouble getting a good night’s sleep
- Feeling tired all the time, making it hard to carry out daily tasks
- Appetite changes particularly more cravings for sugary and starchy foods
- Appetite and weight changes
- Feeing sad, guilty and down on yourself
- Feeling hopeless or despair
- Irritability, anger
- Avoiding people or activities that used to be enjoyable
- Feeling tense, stressed, anxious
- Loss of interest in sex and other physical contact
- Depressed mood, low self-esteem
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Difficulty concentrating
- Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
A note that the changes in seasons can trigger mood changes in some people with bipolar disorder. Spring and summer may trigger symptoms of mania or hypomania, while the onset of fall and winter can bring on symptoms of depression. While the depression symptoms of SAD and bipolar disorder can look alike, there are significant differences, especially when it comes to treatment.
While the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are unclear, most theories attribute the disorder to the reduction of daylight hours in winter. The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight that occurs in winter are thought to affect the body by disrupting:
- Circadian rhythms. Your body’s internal clock or sleep-wake cycle responds to changes between light and dark to regulate your sleep, mood, and appetite. The longer nights and shorter days of winter can disrupt your internal clock—leaving you feeling groggy, disoriented, and sleepy at inconvenient times.
- Production of melatonin. When it’s dark, your brain produces the hormone melatonin to help you sleep and then sunlight during the day triggers the brain to stop melatonin production so you feel awake and alert. During the short days and long nights of winter, however, your body may produce too much melatonin, leaving you feeling drowsy and low on energy.
- Production of serotonin. The reduced sunlight of winter can lower your body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. A deficit may lead to depression and adversely affect your sleep, appetite, memory, and sexual desire.
While your doctor may suggest treatment such as medication, psychotherapy, and light therapy, otherwise known as phototherapy. Light therapy aims to replace the missing daylight of winter by exposing you to bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Daily exposure can suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin to help you feel more awake and alert, less drowsy and melancholy.
But Spring is around the corner….
While seasonal depression can make it hard to motivate yourself to make changes, there are plenty of steps you can take to help yourself feel better. By adopting healthy habits and scheduling fun and relaxation into your day, you can help lift the cloud of seasonal affective disorder and keep it from coming back. And now is the perfect time to get started as the longer days and warmth of Spring and Summer rapidly approach.
Tip #1: Get as much natural sunlight as possible—it’s free!
- Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun without wearing sunglasses (but never stare directly at the sun).
- Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside if you can stay warm enough.
- Increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows.
- Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs also helps combat winter SAD.
Tip #2: Exercise regularly—it can be as effective as medication
- Regular exercise is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression, especially if you’re able to exercise outside in natural daylight.
- Regular exercise can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication.
- Exercise can also help to improve your sleep and boost your self-esteem.
- Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days. Even something as simple as walking a dog, for example, can be good exercise for you and the animal, as well as a great way to get outdoors and interact with other people.
Tip #3: Reach out to family and friends—and let them help
- Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage and climbing out of SAD or any depressive time.
- Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will boost your mood.
- Even if you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect or start new relationships. Call or email an old friend to meet for coffee. Or reach out to someone new—a work colleague or neighbor, for example. Most of us feel awkward about reaching out, but be the one to break the ice.
- Join a support group for depression. Sometimes, just talking about what you’re going through can help you feel better. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes.
- Meet new people with a common interest by taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun for you.
- Volunteer your time. Helping others is one of the best ways to feel better about yourself, expand your social network, and overcome SAD.
Tip #4: Eat the right diet
- Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
- While the symptoms of SAD can make you crave sugary foods and simple carbohydrates, such as pasta and white bread, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
- Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as oily fish, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can also improve your mood and may even boost the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
Tip #5: Take steps to deal with stress—by making time for fun
- Whatever the time of year, too much stress can exacerbate or even trigger depression. Figure out the things in your life that stress you out, such as work overload or unsupportive relationships, and make a plan to avoid them or minimize their impact.
- Practicing daily relaxation techniques can help you manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Do something you enjoy every day. Having fun is a great stress buster, so make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be painting, playing the piano, working on your car, or simply hanging out with friends.