Feeling a little down lately, and not quite sure why? Or, maybe you know that you dread the winter months and/or the holidays every year, but you can’t quite pinpoint a logical explanation. No worries! You are not alone.
You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder. This phenomenon is somewhat common this time of year, but you shouldn’t just ignore it! Read on to learn more about SAD, what causes it, what symptoms to watch for, and how to prevent and/or treat it if you are affected.
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that manifests around the same period of time each year. Most often it occurs during the winter months, but for some, it can be an issue during spring or even summer.
What Causes SAD?
Researchers aren’t entirely able to pinpoint a specific cause of all cases of SAD, but most often it is linked to the body’s natural production of serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin and melatonin are very involved in your body’s circadian rhythm, so any change to their balance can lead to a disruption in your body’s natural function.
Serotonin is the brain chemical that regulates your mood, and it has been found to have some link to sunlight exposure and vitamin D levels. When daylight lessens in the fall and winter months, this can alter the production of serotonin in your body and trigger SAD. In addition, the increased hours of darkness can lead to a higher production of melatonin in your body -- this hormone is essential to your sleep cycle and is responsible for your increased fatigue.
Risk factors include your distance from the equator (the farther from the equator, the higher your risk of SAD), and there is even some evidence to indicate gender may play a role; on average, 4 out of 5 cases of SAD are found in women. Additionally, you could be at an increased risk due to genetic or personal history with SAD, major depression, or bipolar disorder.
What Are Symptoms of SAD?
Symptoms of SAD are very characteristic of depression. Along with increased fatigue and a feeling of dread/sadness, symptoms can include:
A consistent feeling of daily depression (during the specific time of year, every year; if your depression regularly manifests outside of seasonally, consult with a physician as it is not likely SAD.)
Little interest in activities you usually enjoy
Insomnia/difficulty sleeping, or even in some cases, OVERsleeping
Sudden changes in appetite and/or weight
A feeling of agitation and/or increased anxiety
Finding it difficult to concentrate
A sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or even guilt
In extreme cases, thoughts of self-harm and even suicide are not unheard of. If you find yourself experiencing multiple of the above symptoms, it may be time to talk to your doctor and formulate a plan for treatment and future prevention.
How Can I Prevent and/or Treat SAD?
Prevention and treatment of SAD typically fall into four categories: light therapy, talk therapy, medication, and mindfulness.
There are many lamps available online to help with at-home light therapy, and talk therapy and prescribed medication intervention are as easy as talking to your doctor. Taking a vitamin D supplement may also be helpful.
When speaking of mindfulness, it’s important to focus on your overall mental health and what you can do in the moment. Turning to options such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi are excellent ways to enhance the mind-body connection and focus on holistic mental health.
Like all medical prevention and treatment, no plan is “one-size-fits-all”. It’s important to find the best course of action for your specific health needs, so be sure to consult with a doctor before making any alterations to your healthcare routine.