Understanding & Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Allison Dickens, LPC

As the days grow shorter and the chill of late fall sets in, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience a change in their mood.  This change, which we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), affects many of us living in the northeast as our winters can be long and cold.  Learning to understand, identify, and manage the symptoms of SAD can mean a happier, healthier, and cozier winter for us and those around us.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It is not known what factors exactly lead to symptoms of SAD, but there are several factors which may contribute:

  • Reduced Sunlight: decreased exposure to sunlight leads to lack of production of Vitamin D and other vital neurotransmitters which can cause symptoms such as exhaustion, muscle fatigue, and mood changes.
  • Changes in Sleep Patterns: during winter, the lack of sunlight can lead to changes in sleep patterns and disturbances, which leads to lack of sleep, fatigue, and low energy.
  • Melatonin Overproduction: Longer days and more sunlight leads to regulation of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep.  Lack of daylight can lead to increased melatonin production, which can lead to fatigue.

How To Identify Seasonal Affective Disorder

It is important to note that any of these symptoms can occur at any time of year, but these symptoms occurring specifically during the late fall and winter and the absence of these symptoms during the rest of the year may point to the impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Further, individuals with existing mental health concerns may notice an increase or intensification of the following symptoms during this time of year:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, or mood swings
  • Lack of energy or feelings of fatigue
  • Increased irritability or anxiety
  • Difficulty with concentration and decision making
  • Increased need for sleep and/or poor sleep quality
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Loss of interest in formerly enjoyed activities
  • Change in appetite, either increases or decreases

Note that the onset of or increase in these symptoms during the fall and winter months can be a normal response to the time of year.  If these symptoms significantly impact daily life in a way that feels insurmountable, it may be time to think about ways to manage these symptoms and find ways to appreciate the winter months.

How to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

While it may feel impossible, there are ways to manage the symptoms of SAD.  Below are some tips to help overcome the impact of the symptoms and live a healthy, happy winter:

  • Go outside:  When the weather allows, spending time outside can help improve mood and increase vitamin D levels.  Short walks, jogs, or even just basking in the limited sunlight can help immensely.
  • Get regular exercise:  Physical activity has been proven to boost mood and reduce symptoms of depression.  Engaging in activities like walking, yoga, or any form of movement that makes you feel good can be beneficial in managing mood changes.
  • Create a daily routine:  Establishing a structured routine can help provide a sense of stability and alleviate feelings of anxiety or sadness.  This includes waking up and going to sleep at the same time daily, eating on a regular schedule, and incorporating time in your schedule for activities you enjoy.
  • Stay connected:  Reaching out to friends, family, or a support group for emotional help can create feelings of safety and combat feelings of isolation during the bleak midwinter months.
  • Practice good self care:  Remaining active in your hobbies is an important way to elevate mood.  Practicing a healthy diet rich in whole foods and mindful of intake of alcohol and processed foods can help stabilize energy levels and have a significant impact on mood.  Similarly, it is important to practice stress management such as journaling, deep breathing exercises, or meditation in order to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and instill a sense of overall calm.
  • Seek professional help:  If your symptoms are persistent or significantly impacting your daily life, it may be beneficial to consult with a therapist or a psychiatrist.  They can provide guidance and recommendations for appropriate treatment options such as therapy and medication.
  • Try light therapy:  Consider using a light therapy box or lamp, which emits bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.  This can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression by boosting mood and regulating your internal body clock.
  • Practice self compassion:  Remember that seasonal depression is a legitimate condition that affects many people.  Be kind to yourself and practice self-compassion, allowing yourself to acknowledge and accept your feelings without judgment.

Above all, remember: this too shall pass, and we will see the sun again.  Find ways to enjoy the winter while it is here and welcome the spring when it comes again.