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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Why do I want to hibernate every winter?

It's that time of year in the mid-west. The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting cooler. The leaves will be changing soon, then dropping. After that, it's time to brace for short days. Going to work and coming home in the dark. Gray skies, snow storms and ice. I'll admit it; I dislike winter in the best of times. I especially dislike it when I slow down and feel the urge to curl up and hibernate until spring. Otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

Let's talk about what SAD. SAD is a kind of 'winter depression.' It starts in the fall when the days start getting shorter. It increases throughout the winter and usually lifts in the spring when the days get longer again. Symptoms are similar to that of 'regular' depression and can include:

  • Loss of energy

  • Loss of interest in things you used to like doing

  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or uselessness

  • Increased sensitivity to social rejection

  • Irritability/anger outbursts

  • Increase in anxiety

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Sleeping more

  • Change in appetite-possibly eating more and craving carbs

  • Weight gain

If this sounds like you, you're not alone. SAD affects about 3 million people annually. The farther north you live, the more likely you are to develop SAD. Women are more at risk than men (Although, I bet that's more about women being more likely to talk about it and seek help!) You're also more at risk if you have a relative that struggles with SAD.

Scientists aren't really sure what causes SAD. Some possible explanations are that the decrease in sunlight interferes with you circadian rhythms or biological clock. A reduction in sunlight may result in a decrease in serotonin resulting in depression. The change in season may also disrupt the levels of melatonin, causing a change in sleep patterns resulting in depression.

Regardless of the reasons for seasonal depression, it exists and can be managed. So, how do you deal with SAD? I'm glad you asked! The most important thing is to get a handle on it as soon as possible. The nasty thing about depression is that it saps your will to take action and fight it. Don't wait until you find yourself curled up in the fetal position, unable to move, to start dealing with it. Start now, as soon as you feel yourself slowing down. The faster you catch it, the easier it will be. (Easier-not easy.)

My first suggestion to all clients that are struggling with any form of depression is to see a doctor and check out medical possibilities. Thyroid imbalances and low levels of vitamin D can both contribute to symptoms of depression. There are other possible medical causes of depression, but since I'm not a doctor, I'm going to emphasize talk to your doctor and rule out medical conditions.

So let's say your doctor gave you the all clear physically. One of the first things I recommend for seasonal depression is a light box. There is plenty of research that shows light boxes can decrease the symptoms of seasonal depression. A couple of things to take note of. A light box is probably not for you if you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It can trigger a manic episode. You also want to be careful if you are on medications that make you sensitive to light.

The first thing I recommend for depression. (And for anxiety, but we'll talk about that later, is cardio exercise. Exercise will decrease cortisol (the stress hormone). It will increase the production of dopamine and serotonin. Cardio will help you sleep better and give you more energy. It will also help combat the weight gain that almost everyone encounters during winter. Cardio exercise, hitting your target heart weight for 20 minutes, 3 times a week is the single best thing you can do for stress, anxiety and depression. I get how few people follow through with this (including me), so no judgment here if you don't try this option.

Light boxes are a great place to start treating SAD because there are no serious side effects. Make sure you get a light box that emits 10,000 lux. You'll see a lot of cheap light boxes in places like Amazon, if they don't have 10,000 lux, the research doesn't support it. Follow the instructions that come with the light box. You only need to use it for a short time in the morning. I would suggest not using it at night because you'll find yourself wide-awake afterwards. (I found this out the hard way!) You should notice the effects within two weeks. Tanning beds are NOT effective. I hear this all the time, “I go tanning to help with my winter depression.” Nope, doesn't work, different light waves. Go tanning if you want, but it won't help your depression.

Another option for SAD is medication. There's no shame in taking medication for depression. If you feel this is the option for you, talk to your doctor. I won't spend a lot of time talking about anti-depressants because I'm a therapist not a doctor. I do believe it's a viable option for those that are open to it.

Seasonal affective disorder is real. It's common. Most importantly, it's manageable. This is the time of year people start feeling the first cold, curls of depression. I can't say this enough, start treating it now, in the early stages, to have a happy, healthy winter.

Therapy can help. Cognitive behavior therapy is effective for treating depression. It helps to identify the negative thoughts that accompany depression and take positive actions to keep you mood stable. Sometimes (often) you need someone detached to help you identify the negative thoughts and challenge them. A therapist can also help you stay accountable for following through on goals.

If you want help with treating your depression, schedule a free consultation.

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