If you’re feeling a little down this winter season, you’re not alone. Read more about seasonal affective disorder and how you can combat seasonal depression.
Many think of the holidays as the most joyous time of the year, but for some, that's not necessarily the case. If you tend to get the winter or the holiday blues, then you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression.
Whether you are struggling with feelings of grief due to the loss of a loved one, experiencing a hard transitional phase in your life, or experiencing general feelings of sadness that you just can’t explain, there are ways and resources to get you through this season.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
In short, SAD or seasonal depression is a form of depression that is triggered by changes in daylight and weather that typically occurs at the onset of the winter season — in other words, when the days get shorter, colder and darker. Add on a life changing event like the loss of a loved one or a big transition, and your winter blues suddenly get bluer.
Here’s a fact: about 4 to 6% of Americans have SAD, with 20% experiencing a mild form of it — often getting brushed off as the winter blues. In northern regions where the winters are longer and harsher, SAD rears its ugly head even moreso. While the risk for SAD increases with age, some people as young as their twenties start to present symptoms associated with seasonal depression. Other risk factors include:
A personal history or existing diagnosis of depression or SAD
A family history of depression or SAD
Women are more 4 times more likely than men to experience SAD
What causes SAD?
Why some people get SAD is not for certain — but there are a few theories as to what could be causing it.
Biological Clock: It is believed that seasonal changes can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm (or biological clock) and how they function during sleeping and waking hours.
Serotonin: This brain chemical is responsible for your mood, and when sunlight exposure is reduced, your serotonin levels drop.
Melatonin: The brain chemical that induces and regulates sleep is produced when it’s dark. This means more darkness will leave you feeling sluggish and unenergized.
Life Events: If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or have experienced a major life event such as a move away from home, the winter and holidays can resurface feelings of sadness.
This begs the question: can SAD be prevented? While not much is known about preventing it, there are a number of ways to manage your seasonal depression, and it begins with recognizing the signs.
What are the symptoms of SAD?
Different symptoms may be experienced by different people. However, common signs of seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression, include:
A change in appetite
Sudden weight gain or weight loss
Fatigue and constant tiredness
Sleep irregularity, especially sleeping more
Trouble with concentrating
Increased irritability and sensitivity
Increased sensitivity to rejection
Feeling the urge to avoid social situations and isolate yourself
Loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy
Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
Feelings of sadness
What are the best ways to manage or treat seasonal depression?
The key to thriving despite your seasonal depression is learning how to manage it. Whether your winter blues are a result of your physiological response to the seasonal changes, or triggered by a major life event, you can navigate through it.
Take care of your physical health: Make sure you are taking good care of your body by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet and getting some form of physical exercise which has been shown to have the same effect on depression as antidepressants.
Avoid using substances as coping mechanisms: As tempting as it may be to down out your sorrows with a bottle of wine or turn to drugs to get your mind off the pain, they make depression worse.
Fill up your social calendar: It’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of isolation when you’re not feeling your best or have the energy to be social. However, distancing yourself from others can fuel your sadness — reach out to friends or family and plan an outing.
Learn to manage your stress: The winter, and holiday season especially, can be so stressful and overwhelming with a long list of to-do’s. Instead of avoiding it, learn to manage your stress by staying organized, avoiding procrastination, and speaking with a counselor.
Focus on what makes you happy: Now more than ever is the time to do something that fills your cup and brings you joy. Whether that’s squeezing in an extra massage, baking, watching your favorite movies or listening to music that lifts your spirits.
Don’t avoid your grief: If you’re missing someone special during this season, don’t avoid it. Give yourself permission to have those emotions, but at the same time, shift your mind to happy memories with them.
Create new traditions: Seasonal depression can be exacerbated if you’re far from your family or missing a matriarch around the holidays. Try to share uplifting memories and stories, and focus on creating new traditions and memories that honor them.
Get some sunlight: Even if it’s for a few minutes a day, try to catch the sun and enjoy it as much as possible. If you have the means to, consider taking a trip to a warmer destination which will give you a much needed break from your daily routine.
Prioritize your mental health: Focus on healthy habits that feed your mental wellbeing like meditation, journaling, affirmations and reading. Seek the help of a mental health professional like a therapist, a counselor or even join a support group.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, be sure to get help. You can also check out the following resources.
Fourth Edition: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Coping with the Seasons workbook: Cognitive Behavioral Approach to Seasonal Affective Disorder
Crisis Text Line available 24/7
Text HOME 741741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline avaialable 24/7 - 800-273-8255 for English or 888-628-9454 for Spanish
10 Podcasts About Mental Health | The Lily: Check out this list of 10 podcasts about mental health topics from depression and anxiety to trauma
Therapy for Black Girls Podcast | Therapy for Black Girls: A weekly podcast on a variety of topics related to mental health from Joy Harden Bradford, MA, PhD, a licensed psychologist.