Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is associated with changes in the seasons. It also has the clever acronym SAD, or it’s called the winter blues. These symptoms often start in the fall and persist into the winter. With winter SAD, people feel less energetic and more moody, with symptoms similar to depression.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling sluggish, tired, or low in energy
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling hopeless
- Gaining weight
- Experiencing changes in appetite
- Craving more food, especially high-carb food
Around 20% of Americans (that’s like 65 million people) experience seasonal affective disorder. This disorder impacts people who are closer to the poles because the amount of sunlight varies more dramatically with the seasons there than it does near the equator.
I’m from Cache Valley, Utah, where we only get about nine hours of daylight on winter solstice. That means that if you work indoors and go to work at 8 and get home at 5, you won’t even see the sun peeking out behind the mountains. Temperatures often hover in the negatives for weeks, and air quality gets atrocious.
Long story short, winter can be pretty miserable. And that’s not just for me. In one study, 85% of people with mood disorders like depression said their symptoms got worse during the winter months.
What Is Spring/Summer SAD?
How Does Light Exposure Impact Mood?
How Does Modern Culture Mess With Natural Patterns?
What Is Bright Light Therapy for SAD?
- Cooler tones, very bright
- 10,000 Lux at a comfortable distance
- Very large area
- Angle above the eyes
What Are Other Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
You should combine light therapy with other treatments for best results. And light therapy isn’t the only treatment for SAD. Building a healthy lifestyle is essential to managing your mood anytime, but especially during the winter. Other treatments for SAD include:
- Medications, including SSRI’s.
- Exercise, which is always good for the mood and the body.
- Therapy to explore how your thoughts and actions may be contributing to your low mood and to learn new skills to combat mood disorders. This has been shown to be effective at treating SAD, even with just a few sessions.
- Socialization. Plan in some way to get together, whether it’s doing playgroup with other moms, having Zoom meetings with friends, gaming together, whatever. I know it’s hard right now during the pandemic, but it’s still really important to see friends.
- Schedule adjustment. See if you can adjust your schedule a little to get outside when the sun is shining. Maybe you can start work later, get outside in the morning, or take a short walk during your lunch break.
- Dressing for the winter so you can still get outside. People who move from warmer climates to colder ones, like my husband, often just need a little knowledge about gear to make their experience so much better. Good boots, socks, a hat, and thermal underwear can make a world of difference. Wearing layers when outside can make almost any weather accessible. If you wear the right clothes you can do almost any activity outside in most types of weather. My dad goes biking even in the freezing Logan winters.
Another thing to consider is that most Americans have low vitamin D levels, and that is associated with depression. Your body uses sunlight to metabolize vitamin D, and those levels tend to drop in the winter. But there are mixed results about whether supplementing with vitamin D is effective or not. I recommend working with your doctor to explore that option.