Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a sleeping giant, lying dormant for three-quarters of the year. As the days get shorter and darker and the snow starts to fall, people begin to feel less energy, are less likely to be productive, and begin to feel hopeless. These are common symptoms of SAD, a type of depression set apart by a seasonal pattern.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Symptoms of depression exist on a spectrum and can range from a change in appetite to having thoughts of self-harm or contemplating suicide. Other depressive symptoms can include trouble sleeping, a loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, and feeling hopeless.
"People with seasonal affective disorder unfortunately often don't get diagnosed unless their symptoms of depression get very severe," says Jason Hunziker, MD, chief of the Division of Adult Psychiatry at University of Utah Health.
Don't wait until it is the middle of winter and you are experiencing the symptoms of SAD to start preparing. Know your symptoms and plan. “If you know that you tend to experience seasonal depression, start preparing six to eight weeks prior to the time your symptoms usually start,” Hunziker says. “Get back on medications if you found that helpful in the past and plan to re-engage with your therapist and set out a plan. If you can, plan a vacation for the middle of winter in a location with abundant sunlight. Do your best to maintain a good sleep schedule, eat healthy, exercise, and stay connected to family and friends.”
Who Is Affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Studies show that seasonal affective disorder affects an estimated 10 million people living in the U.S. It often begins between the ages of 18 and 30. SAD is four times more common in women than in men.
There is no singular known cause of this disorder, but there are some biological indicators. These can include producing too much melatonin and difficulty regulating serotonin levels. Other risk factors can include already having a mood disorder or a family history of depression or bipolar disorder.
"Younger adults in their 20s and those patients in the geriatric population are also at increased risk of seasonal affective disorder," Hunziker says.
You can do many things to prevent or help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.
How to Alleviate Seasonal Symptoms
- Get more light. Start getting up an hour earlier to reset your internal clock to allow your days to be filled with more light. Install more lighting in your home or invest in a lightbox. It’s worth noting that lightboxes aren’t FDA approved, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. Speak to your provider before investing to ensure you are getting the correct one for you. It may help reduce some of the symptoms of SAD, including less energy, less productivity, and feelings of hopelessness.
- Get outside. Being outside in nature can help combat the effects of SAD. It has the extra benefit of generating positive emotions like calmness and concentration, and it can boost self-esteem. It may be harder to get outside when it's cold, but bundling up and taking a walk will boost your mood.
- Eat your fruits and veggies. A healthy diet may help with both depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that women who had a diet higher in protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of depression than women whose diets included more refined sugars, refined grains, and processed foods.
- Start a new hobby. Once it's dark earlier in the evening, this may be the time that people feel sad or helpless. Developing a new hobby, joining a book club, or picking up something to do with your hands may take your mind off feeling down during these dark hours.
- Stay away from harmful triggers. Many things may feel good in the moment when you're suffering from seasonal depression, but they may later make you more depressed. Knowing these triggers in advance is essential so that you can avoid them later. For many people, this includes "binging" behavior, whether it's alcohol, late-night ice cream, or too much Netflix. It may feel good now but could contribute to worsening your depression later.
- Start taking vitamins. Finding a vitamin with vitamin D supplementation can be helpful to patients experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
- Plan a vacation. Getting out of the gloomy weather and traveling to a sunny destination can help your mood. Also, having a vacation on the calendar and planning something to look forward to can help keep your mind on something positive.
Resources for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Additional resources such as counseling may help if symptoms are severe. Reach out to someone you love to talk about what you're feeling, or contact a warmline near you. You also can seek help from a crisis line like SafeUT, which offers counseling for depression, anxiety, and any other mental health issues.
It’s important to know that help is available for those dealing with SAD . Hunziker emphasizes there is no reason for patients to suffer. "The important thing to stress is that there are successful treatments for the symptoms," he says. "People should make sure that they’re talking to their primary care providers if they feel the symptoms recur every year.” There are many ways to manage and treat the symptoms of SAD. There is no reason for people to suffer in the wintertime.