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When winter comes, the days become shorter, less bathed in sunlight. This darkness sends a signal to our brains to release huge amounts of melatonin which makes us want to sleep – a lot.
But this overproduction often leads to seasonal depression. Also known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. This is a mood disorder which affects about 20% of the population.
So, all of those holiday twinkle lights are not just about the holidays, they may help regulate our mood.
It’s important to remember that this disorder is different from depression.
When it comes to diagnosed depression, your brain is unable to feel pleasure. The symptoms are often:
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble sleeping
Depressed people have a harder time with their illness during winter as well – but if you are feeling these symptoms only during winter or a certain seasons, this means that you have SAD.
SAD can affect both men and women in equal numbers. While scientists used to consider women more prone to seasonal depression because they typically expressed it with crying and melancholy, it was found that men suffer from it too. Men just express it differently – with anger, irritability and similar internal feelings.
One of the best ways to reverse the production of melatonin is to spend plenty of time outside during the day, especially on sunnier days. You can also get a light box, if you don’t have enough time to go outside. It can help your mood stabilize the same way the natural light does.
You should also have realistic expectations about holidays – nothing is perfect and keep in mind that holiday stress can take a toll on your mental health. Try to maintain a good lifestyle too. Try to:
- Sleep at least 6-8 hrs a day
- Exercise frequently
- Minimal alcohol use
- Spend at least half an hr a day in the sun
Create some hobbies for yourself to keep you busy. Do something in your house or read plenty of your favorite books.
If all of these remedies don’t end up working well, schedule an appointment with your doctor and talk about some medical interventions or therapy to improve your mood.
What is Seasonal Depression?
Once the leaves start falling and days become shorter, we all get caught up in a wistful, melancholic mood. Some people need only a bit of holiday spirit and some warmth of the fire or their favorite beverage but many people get more depressed as winter comes.
This disorder is still a mystery to many scientists, mostly because it’s not just one element building up to this illness but rather more of them. For one, we have the increased production of melatonin in the brain, then there are the ions in the air which change with the season and genetics are involved as well.
However, there is one thing that all of these people have in common…
They are sensitive to light or the lack of light.
Many studies confirm that people who suffer from SAD do feel better after getting some light. However, it’s also very important to get the light early in the morning.
Scientists also believe that because of the change outside, our circadian rhythm can’t adjust.
Think about it –
The alarm clock is waking you up but your circadian clock sees only the darkness and tells you to go back to sleep. This is why light is so important in the morning.
On rare occasions, people suffer from summer depression too. It’s followed by the same symptoms as the winter depression but it starts late in the spring and ends in fall. While it is rare, it still happens and if you think you have it, phone your doctor.
In general, winter depression often happens in areas where seasons are highly distinctive and rarely in areas where there is plenty of sunshine all year round.
Common Symptoms and How to Relieve Them
We all experience a drop in our mood when summer goes away and fall starts creeping in. The leaves keep falling, frost covers the ground and we feel sleepy and less motivated for anything but sleep. Most people feel better around the holidays – or at least before, when the euphoria begins.
But for some, the change is serious.
They have trouble getting out of the bed, they feel tired and lethargic throughout the day and they crave sunlight. All they want to do is sleep until winter goes away. People with summer depression have trouble eating, sleeping and have the same general feelings about summer as people with winter depression do about winter.
This disorder usually starts in October or November once the days start getting noticeably shorter and it gets better as the spring becomes closer. It can look and feel a lot like depression but follows a pattern where it only happens in the certain season.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of seasonal depression:
- Feeling sad, despondent and depressed almost every day of certain season
- Losing interest in hobbies and things you otherwise enjoy and find interesting
- Oversleeping starts, you can’t seem to get out of bed (most people have trouble with this, but it’s more severe with SAD)
- Zero energy and no will to do anything but lay in bed, feeling lethargic
- Trouble focusing on one thing for too long
- Anxious, irritated and more stressed than usual or you have trouble handling that stress
- Don’t want to engage with other people and want to be left alone
- Loss of sexual desire towards your partner or other people
- You crave sunlight and certain food that only comes in summer
- Overeating carbohydrate-rich food, which often results in unwanted weight gain
If you feel like these symptoms apply to you, especially in winter exclusively, you should contact your healthcare provider and discuss some therapy options.
In general, there might be some things you could do to ease your condition:
Try light therapy
Seasonal depression is not so much about the cold as it is about the lack of light. So, it’s very important that you get plenty of time in the sun, especially on sunnier days. You can also get light boxes, lamps and visors which will provide you with plenty of light when there is no sunshine outside. Make sure that you get these lamps from a certified company and follow your doctor’s prescription on the amount of light you should receive.
It’s very important to maintain a healthy and steady sleep schedule. SAD often means sleep disturbances so you should have a strict sleep schedule. Get to sleep earlier so you can have better chances getting up more easily.
Spend some time outside
You might want to spend all of your time in your home, under the covers, but this is not a solution. Spending time outside will help you negate this desire to sleep and you will experience a more energetic mood.
Take a vacation somewhere sunny
This is another form of therapy – combat SAD by traveling to sunny climates and bring some life to your winter.
While you might get cravings, keep in mind that this can contribute to your poor mood. Indulge your cravings on occasion but keep your weight and health in mind and eat a balanced menu of fruit, vegetables and lean meats. Drink plenty of water and avoid drinking alcohol as much as possible.
Many people suffering from this disorder take medications seasonally. They start in the fall and take them all through winter, slowly giving them up when the spring comes. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and explore some options.
Seasonal Depression Treatment Methods
If you feel all of the signs of depression in certain times of the year – either winter or summer – this could be a sign that you have seasonal affective disorder or SAD. However, it can be hard to diagnose SAD because it can mimic various other conditions like low blood sugar, virus, depression, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue and so on.
Your doctor will likely look for these signs:
- If you had depression which comes and goes with the seasons for at least the past two years
- You usually don’t feel these symptoms
- You had more depression in a certain season than not
These symptoms will start to fade as spring or fall comes but if you want to get better sooner, you should try one of the available treatments for seasonal affective disorder like:
- Light therapy
- Medications like Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft
- Talk therapy, which can help you learn to enjoy the season, manage stress and cope with daily life
- Take vitamin D and spend time in the sun
- Stay active – exercise plenty
- Travel to a sunnier place
- Get enough sleep
What are the Warning Signs of Seasonal Depression?
SAD comes and goes with the seasons. It takes away your energy, increases your cravings and makes you feel sad or moody – even angry and frustrated.
But how do you see it coming before it gets to you?
Is there a way to prevent it?
Here are some risk factors for the seasonal affective disorder:
You live far from the equator – This disorder is more common in colder climates. For instance, it’s seven times more common in New England, Washington and other cold cities than it is in Miami or anywhere else in Florida. Scientists believe that it has to do with days being shorter.
You are a women with a history of depression, especially during childbearing years. Family history of depression also increases the risk.
Your cravings are hard to control during winter.
You want to hibernate all winter.
Daylight Savings Time comes and you feel as if a large burden has been taken off of you
Keep in mind that this disorder can only be diagnosed by a doctor but if you feel like this may describe you, you should schedule a meeting with your doctor and discuss your possibilities and preventive measures.
Have you had any luck with some of the above treatments for seasonal depression? Feel free to share your story down below.