How to Shoo Away Seasonal Depression
As the holiday season arrives along with the inevitable change of season and colder weather, it often brings along new or increased stress, anxiety, and depression. November and December are frequently booked tightly with events and obligations (either with family or socially), which bring about feelings of stress and anxiety that feel more intense than perhaps any other time of year. The holiday season is also the gateway to the winter months. These months are punctuated by shorter days, colder weather, and necessary changes to daily routines, which can also lead to increased depression and anxiety.
For many, short term stressors are easily managed. However, the increased stress and anxiety that often accompany the holiday and winter season are not necessarily short term. Extended, long-term stressors such as these can wear you down and increase your susceptibility to illness, exhaustion, and depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD (also referred to as seasonal depression) is a form of depression that appears regularly each year. When someone struggles with seasonal affective disorder, they experience symptoms of depression and unexplained fatigue as the winter months approach and daylight hours become shorter. For most, when spring returns and the days become longer again, the symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder will begin to fade. When you experience seasonal affective disorder, symptoms related to depression are triggered by how your brain reacts to decreased daylight exposure during the winter. The reduced exposure to daylight impacts how the brain produces two essential chemicals related to emotion: melatonin and serotonin. Both of these chemicals help regulate the sleep-wake cycles in the body, along with energy levels and mood. The shorter days and less sunlight associated with winter may increase melatonin levels (produced as the sun sets) and decrease serotonin, which creates the perfect chemical condition for increased depression symptoms.
What Are Some Common Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms you may experience if you struggle with seasonal affective disorder are similar to other types of depression. However, they do not manifest with the same frequency. Changes in your mood and emotion will occur in a more predictable, seasonal pattern. Some of the most common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
Lack of Enjoyment
When someone experiences seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression, it is not uncommon for them to lose interest in the activities they once enjoyed or the people they usually surround themselves with. When you struggle with seasonal affective disorder, you may feel as though you can no longer accomplish certain tasks to the level you “normally” could, even though this feeling may be inaccurate. You may have increased feelings of dissatisfaction and guilt or begin to lose interest in your friends and social activities.
Reduced Energy and Changes in Sleeping Patterns
Reduced energy and unexplained fatigue are common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. It is believed these may be caused by reductions in serotonin and increased melatonin production due to the change in seasons and reduced daylight hours. It is difficult to stay energetic when it is still dark when you leave for work and gets dark before you arrive home. Feeling as though you are continually functioning without daylight can make it challenging to sleep on a regular schedule.
Changes in Eating Patterns
Changes in diet-related to seasonal affective disorder may include increased cravings for simple carbohydrates (for example, comfort foods and sugary foods) and the tendency to overeat. Due to these changes in eating habits, weight gain during the winter months is not uncommon. Depending on the individual, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance.
Difficulties with Concentration
In addition to increased feelings of lethargy and exhaustion, seasonal affective disorder can cause difficulty concentrating. This, too, can interfere with performance and the ability to accomplish things at work and at home.
As with other forms of depression, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can range considerably and may present differently from individual to individual. Where it may impact one person very minimally, it may be crippling for another. Seasonal affective disorder has a seasonal pattern, which can help you distinguish it from other forms of depression when reaching out to a mental health facility like The Meadowglade for help with your symptoms.
Who Gets Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder can impact anyone regardless of age or gender. The number of people who experience seasonal affective disorder annually will vary from region to region and will increase in locations where there are more days with fewer hours of sunlight. Seasonal affective disorder does not affect everyone in a particular area. It is estimated that about 6 out of every 100 people will experience symptoms each year. Like other forms of depression, seasonal depression is typically more common in women than in men and with those who have a family history of depression (of any kind). Individual factors such as hormone production, brain chemistry, biology, environment, and life experiences may also play a role.
Diagnosing and Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
Diagnosing seasonal depression requires careful and mindful evaluation by mental health and medical professionals. Many of the symptoms associated with seasonal affective disorder could be the result of other medical or mental health conditions that require specific treatment. For example, fatigue and low energy could be a sign of a medical condition such as hypoglycemia or low blood pressure. Other symptoms such as sleep changes and alterations in appetite can also have medical links, and specific medical treatment may be necessary before mental health conditions can be addressed.
With a proper diagnosis, there are a variety of possible treatments for seasonal affective disorder. Similar to other forms of depression (and other mental health conditions), it is essential to work with your mental health team to determine a unique treatment plan designed to address your specific treatment needs. Your treatment plans could include a combination of some or all of the following treatment options.
Increased Light Exposure
For cases of seasonal affective disorder, where symptoms are more intense, light therapy or phototherapy may be used. This process involves using a special light that simulates daylight. You will be instructed to sit in front of the light for a short period each day. For most, symptoms often begin to improve within a few days to a few weeks. Once enough natural light is available outside, it is typically recommended that natural light be used instead. It is essential to note that light therapy is a medical intervention and should only be used under the supervision of and guidance of your medical provider. There are some instances where pre-existing or co-occurring medical conditions indicate light therapy should not be used. Also, tanning beds are not a suitable light therapy alternative for seasonal affective disorder as they do not filter out harmful ultraviolet rays in the same way as lights designed explicitly for phototherapy.
Talk therapy or psychotherapy is also used as part of many treatment plans for people struggling with seasonal affective disorder symptoms. Talk therapy focuses on encouraging you to address and examine your negative thought patterns so you can change them. Talk therapy can also help ease the sense of isolation and loneliness that often accompany seasonal depression (and other forms of depression). One of the most common types of talk therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. These sessions can be held in group or individual settings, depending on your comfort level and unique treatment needs. Talk therapy can also help you learn more about and understand your condition, as well as learn more about what you can do to prevent or reduce the occurrence of seasonal symptoms in the future.
Depending on your unique circumstances, your mental health team at The Meadowglade may prescribe medications to help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with seasonal depression. Antidepressant medications help regulate the balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that impact mood and energy levels. While helpful in some cases, medications are not suitable for everyone, so it is essential to discuss your existing medical conditions and any medications you currently take with your provider before starting a new prescription. Also, while medications may help to alleviate some of the symptoms related to anxiety and depression, they are not a “cure” and should not be a long-term substitute for mental health treatment and education about depression and healthy coping skills you can use to manage it.
When you first develop or notice symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (or seasonal depression), it can be confusing for yourself and those around you. Friends and loved ones may be confused about why you are suddenly withdrawing from social events or activities you once enjoyed. If you have never experienced depression before, it is natural to wonder what is wrong or feel added anxiety as you search for answers. If you are experiencing new or recurring symptoms of depression, it is essential to reach out to your primary care provider or one of the team members here at The Meadowglade. Regardless of the type of depression you are experiencing, and it is unlikely the symptoms will merely resolve on their own. Also, seeking therapy and having someone to talk to about what you are experiencing can help you learn ways to manage your existing symptoms better and plan ahead for times in the future when seasonal affective disorder may present challenges. If you are struggling to cope with seasonal depression, reach out to the team at The Meadowglade today. Let us help you work through the emotions and challenges presented by seasonal depression so you can start on the path to happiness.