Depending on where you live, winter can be long, dark and difficult. Just getting out of bed when the outside temperatures are below freezing can be a huge feat. It’s easy to see where a bear’s need to hibernate for the winter comes from, that’s for sure. But for some people, the struggle to function during winter months is more intense than just a dislike for cold weather.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depressive disorder in which sufferers begin to get depressed in the fall and stay that way until spring. Most people with SAD share this cycle, but some can experience depression in the summer months as well. Symptoms often start mildly, then intensify as the season progresses. It’s believed that about 4-6 percent of the population has SAD. That number increases as you get farther away from the equator because there is less light in the winter up north. People who live in places such as Alaska, Northern Canada or Scandinavia are more likely to suffer from the condition.
SAD symptoms include:
● A feeling of depression that stays most of the day
● A loss of interest in activities
● Relationship problems
● Craving carbohydrates
● Low energy
● Sleeping issues
● Sleeping late or oversleeping
● Changes in weight or appetite
● A feeling of sluggishness or agitation
● Heaviness in the arms or legs
● Trouble concentrating
● A feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
● Thoughts of death or suicide
Most people have some of these symptoms in the winter, but not everyone has SAD. The difference between mild “winter blues” and clinical SAD is whether these symptoms are disruptive to daily life. If you’re in danger of losing your job because you are frequently late, or your relationship is on ice because you won’t go out with your spouse in the winter, you might need to talk to your doctor or therapist. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately.
The National Health Service in Great Britain says that the cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, but it’s believed that the lack of daylight in winter may be a cause. The lower light causes the hypothalamus to malfunction, which means your brain may get more melatonin, which causes sleepiness. You may also produce less serotonin, which causes depression. Genetics is another potential cause.
People who suffer from SAD are also at risk of developing substance abuse disorder or relapsing, if they’re in recovery. One study found that those with SAD had a higher incidence of alcoholism. It may be because people spend more time indoors in the winter, which puts them in closer proximity to alcohol, or it may be because some depressed people try to self-medicate with alcohol. Whatever the reason, if you have SAD, be conscious of this connection.
If you suffer from SAD or believe you do, see your doctor about possible therapies. SAD can be treated with medication, talk or light therapy. You can also help make yourself feel better by spending more time in the daylight. Depending on where you live, this can be difficult, but just taking a short walk around the block on your lunch break can help ward off the sadness. It’s also very important to keep your home decluttered and tidy to help avoid increases in anxiety.
Exercise is also an important part of therapy for SAD or any other type of depression or anxiety. Exercise helps increase serotonin levels in the brain, which help prevent depression. If you are having trouble getting off the couch, exercise might seem like a terrible idea. But after you’ve spent about 20 minutes doing some light exercise, you’ll feel much better. Activities like outdoor team sports are a great way to combine physical activity, time in the sunlight, and social interaction, all of which can help ease depression. Just make sure you invest in the right apparel and equipment to keep yourself warm during the winter months.
Winter comes every year, so it’s not something most of us can avoid. Knowing yourself and your ability to cope with the cold and darkness can help you make a plan to get through it. Work with your doctor to make a plan to pull yourself into the light, and you’ll soon feel much better.
-- Written by Kimberly Hayes