It’s not uncommon for people to go through short periods of time where they feel sad or feel less like themselves than usual. Sometimes, these kinds of mood fluctuations are triggered by seasonal changes. In such cases, people usually start to feel depressed when the days get shorter in the fall and winter and only start to feel better in the spring when the days start to get longer and brighter again.
These mood changes can be severe in some cases, and can affect a person’s ability to function, think, and feel on a daily basis. If you find that your mood and behavior change significantly when the seasons change, you might have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression. It is not considered a separate disorder from depression, but rather a seasonal pattern of depression with symptoms lasting 4 to 5 months per year. Signs and symptoms of SAD include those of major depression, but also some symptoms that are specific to winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Similar to major depression, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder vary from person to person, so not every SAD sufferer will experience the same symptoms. An official diagnosis requires a seasonal onset and remission of the depression, and depressive episodes during the season must outnumber nonseasonal episodes. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Feeling anxious, sluggish, or depressed as the seasons begin to change
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping caused by an interrupted sleep pattern
- Overeating and food cravings that may lead to weight gain
- Low energy and poor appetite that may result in weight loss
- Restlessness and agitation
- Loss of interest in usual activities and hobbies
Tips for Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder
1. Consider Light Therapy
One of the reasons people feel depressed in the winter months is that there’s less quality light to help us produce enough vitamin D, which is why light therapy is one of the most commonly used and most effective treatment methods for SAD. Walking during daylight hours, especially on sunny days, can be helpful. You can also purchase specialized light therapy boxes and dawn simulators, which are particularly effective when used in the early morning hours.
2. Exercise Often
If you’re depressed, it may feel like the last thing you want to do is exercise. However, aerobic exercises, particularly when done outdoors in the sunshine or under bright lights, can significantly lift your mood by releasing endorphins that soothe sadness and anxiety. Staying active through the winter will not only help you be healthier and occupy your time, but you’ll already be in the habit and routine by spring to keep your momentum going.
3. Keep Yourself Busy
Plan out your goals and a schedule for the winter, regardless of how general or specific they may be. Keeping physically active and mentally occupied over the holidays will help you stay focused and avoid falling into a rut. No matter what hobbies or activities you choose, regular work and a busy routine will keep you motivated and give you a sense of achievement during dreary weather.
4. Maintain a Healthy Diet
Consuming healthy foods and limiting caffeine consumption in the winter can be even more challenging when you are trying to stave off the urge to stay in bed all day. Make sure you are getting sufficient vitamin D from fortified foods, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, in addition to any sunlight you can get. During winter, carb cravings often result from a lack of serotonin, so try to increase the feel-good chemicals by eating healthy carbohydrates like popcorn, pretzels, and brown rice.
5. Medications and Counseling
Seasonal affective disorder can result in severe and sometimes debilitating depression. If you’re struggling with intense depressive periods during fall and winter that last for one week or more, consider seeing a behavioral health specialist. A therapist, case manager, or psychiatrist can help you cope with these darker times if you’re willing to speak honestly about your feelings and experiences with them. In addition to identifying triggers, therapy can help you learn coping skills to handle anxiety and depression. Cognitive behavior therapy in particular has shown promise for treating SAD.