Winter Blues - Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

February 06, 2022

Sad woman looking out the window

Do you get SAD in the wintertime? Not the regular sort of sad that happens to most of us from time to time, but SAD as in Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If so, you’re not alone, as it’s estimated that as many as 3 % of people globally suffer from SAD. For those with major depressive disorder, SAD affects 10 t0 20 percent of this population and about 25 percent of people with bipolar disorder.

So What Exactly Is SAD?

SAD is a depressive disorder that has its onset in the late fall and winter months, beginning and ending for most people at about the same time. Researchers attribute many of the symptoms of SAD to shorter days with less sunlight.

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

The signs and symptoms of SAD mimic those of depression and may include feeling listless and sad, and down most of the day, every day. Other symptoms that are often experienced are:

  • A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Low energy and a feeling of sluggishness
  • Sleeping too much
  • Carbohydrate cravings and subsequent weight gain
  • Feelings of hopelessness or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of not wanting to continue to live

Risk Factors for SAD

There are risk factors that increase your likelihood of being diagnosed with SAD. Women are affected more than men and SAD is seen more often in younger adults than older people. Other risk factors are having blood relatives with SAD or other forms of depression and having bipolar disorder or major depression.

There are environmental risk factors as well, including living far from the equator where you get less sunlight. Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with SAD. This makes sense as Vitamin D is produced in your skin on exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is critical for the production of adequate serotonin in the brain, which affects mood.

The exact cause or causes of SAD are unknown but there is speculation from researchers that reduced sunlight causes a disruption of your circadian rhythm (your internal clock) and which can lead to feelings of sadness. Decreased sunlight also causes a drop in the levels of the brain hormone serotonin, which could also account for symptoms. Plus, melatonin levels (your sleep hormone) can also be disrupted due to the lack of sun.

If you are experiencing these symptoms and they seem to be seasonal, speak to your physician about the possibility of SAD to get a diagnosis and to also rule out other underlying causes for your symptoms.

Treatment For SAD

Treatment for SAD can include phototherapy (light therapy), medications, and psychotherapy. If you have bipolar disorder and also suffer from SAD, be sure both your physician and mental health professional keep your diagnosis in mind when prescribing light therapy or medications, as these can sometimes trigger a manic episode.

With light therapy, you sit a few feet in front of a special lightbox, which mimics natural light, within the first hour after you wake up every day. Light therapy is safe and effective and usually works within a few days to a few weeks.

Besides light therapy, there are other things you can do that may also help:

Get more sun in your environment by opening blinds and curtains during the day. Sit close to windows at home or at the office.

Go outside daily if you can and walk or simply sit on a park bench in the sun. Even if it’s cold or cloudy, the light from outdoors can help. The earlier you can get outside during the day, the better.

Regular exercise can also be helpful as well as to help relieve stress and anxiety.

And finally, make sure you stick to a definite schedule for waking up and going to bed each day. Avoid napping and oversleeping.

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