The days may be getting longer; despite that, February and March can be dreary months. With the holidays behind us and the excitement of a new year long gone, the dark days, cold temperatures and plentiful snowfall can take a toll. Although mental health professionals often talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the fall, cases of SAD actually peak during January and February.
If you’re feeling depressed, having trouble getting out of bed or are unable to focus, you might be dealing with more than the winter blues. SAD is a mental health condition that can be treated — as long as you know to reach out for help. There’s no reason to wait for springtime to bring brighter days when treatments, counseling, and lifestyle changes can help improve your mental health now. Here’s what you should know about SAD.
What Is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that comes on during the darker months of the year. It’s more common among people who live far from the equator and therefore experience shorter days during the winter. In Canada, for example, about 10% of all depression cases are SAD. About 3% of Canadians have symptoms severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day lives, while about 15% of Canadians have milder symptoms of depression.
Scientists don’t fully understand what causes SAD. However, it’s believed to be linked to less exposure to sunlight during the winter months. Researchers have seen that people with SAD seem to have irregular production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Low serotonin levels have been linked with depression. People with SAD also may overproduce melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Scientists believe that the levels of serotonin and melatonin could be impacted by reduced vitamin D during the winter months.
What Are the Symptoms of SAD?
Although SAD can occur during the summer months, most people experience SAD during the winter. The symptoms of SAD are similar to major depression, and can include:
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Feelings of tiredness and hopelessness
- Sleeping or eating too much
To be diagnosed with SAD, you must experience seasonal symptoms for two years. For most people, the symptoms will last 4-5 months of the year. However, you don’t need to wait that long to begin treating the symptoms of SAD.
Treatments for SAD
If you’re experiencing SAD, you can take steps immediately to get help. Talking with a mental health professional — or even your primary care doctor, to start — can be a great first step. A doctor can help evaluate your symptoms and diagnose you with SAD, if appropriate.
There are also steps you can take at home, including:
- Light therapy: Light therapy has been shown to help with the symptoms of SAD. To get the most out of light therapy, you’ll have to invest in a light box that emits at least 10,000 lux (a measurement of brightness). Start your day by sitting in front of the lamp for 30-45 minutes while you eat your breakfast or read.
- Therapy: Talking with a licensed mental health professional can help you develop coping mechanisms to deal with the symptoms of SAD. If you’re not able to make it to in-person therapy because of the pandemic, Zoom or even messaging therapy services can provide a solution.
- Medication: If your symptoms are interfering with your day-to-day life, your doctor might recommend an antidepressant.
If you’re predisposed to SAD, there is no fool-proof way to prevent it. However, there are lifestyle changes that have been shown to reduce the risk of depression. These could help control the symptoms of SAD.
- Getting exercise: Exercise releases feel-good endorphins. Even doing a short exercise video in your home might help mitigate the symptoms of SAD. If you can manage, exercising outside in the sunlight could have a bigger impact.
- Practicing mindfulness: Anything that helps you relax your mind and body — like guided meditation — could impact your feelings of hopelessness and depression.
- Eating healthy: Consuming a varied and nutritious diet can help your body operate at its best.
You might be tempted to just cope with the symptoms of SAD until the spring breaks through. However, help is available now. Reaching out can give you ways to cope with SAD not just this winter, but in future winters as well.
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