Does the change in seasons bring about a change in your mood? You’re not alone.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subtype of major depressive disorder and is triggered by changes in daily sunlight levels. As the weather cools and the days shorten throughout the fall and winter, many people in the United States (about 5% of the population) experience increased feelings of depression and anxiety as a result. Others experience a less severe form of SAD known simply as the “winter blues.”
Symptoms of SAD mirror those of major depression, and may include feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, low energy, and even thoughts of suicide or self harm.
Whether you’re feeling true SAD or typical seasonal-related sadness, it’s important to be aware of why it happens—and what you can do about it. Here’s what we know.
The Causes Behind Seasonal Affective Disorder
The causes of SAD are still being studied and debated, particularly since about 10% of those with symptoms manifest in an opposite cycle to what you expect—i.e. in the spring and summer months instead of the fall and winter months.
That being said, for our purposes here let’s focus on the most common type of SAD—that which occurs in colder months with shorter days—and a few of the possible causes behind it.
- Your biological clock – Decreases in the amount of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which is in turn associated with an increased risk of mood disorders like depression.
- Your serotonin levels – Less sunlight can also cause a decrease in your serotonin levels, spurring on depressive symptoms as well as anxiety and trouble sleeping.
- Your melatonin – Finally, seasonality can throw off your body’s natural melatonin levels, a hormone that plays a crucial role in regulating your mood and sleep functions.
With these possible causes in mind, it becomes easier to understand why darker days and longer nights can lead to depression. So what can you do about it?
There are other tips for combatting SAD from the comfort of your home:
- Try light therapy. Light therapy, also called light box therapy or phototherapy, uses artificial light to mimic the effects of the sun and (possibly) produce a positive chemical response in the brain. Science isn’t decided on whether it definitively works, but there are lots of people who rely on this method and report some benefit.
- Spend time outdoors. Sun may be limited, but it’s important to soak up as much vitamin D as you’re able. Make it a point to get outside every day, even if it’s just to stand in your backyard for five minutes.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. What we eat has a big impact on our mental health. A healthy, well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins is a crucial part of self care and can actually decrease your risk of depression.
- Exercise 30 minutes a day. Exercise is a highly recommended part of depression treatment. You don’t need to start training for a marathon, but do aim to get at least half an hour of physical activity a day—walks, stretching, and online workout classes are all great places to start.
- Stay connected with friends and family. A support system can make all of the difference, especially during winter months when we tend to isolate more. Check in regularly with the people who you love and trust, and be open and honest about how you’re feeling.
- Talk to a mental health professional. It’s never been easier to access professional mental health care. If you’re ready to take the first step but not sure what’s right for you, start with a telehealth appointment or an online therapy program that allows you to send messages back and forth with a licensed mental health provider.
Treatments that Can Help
There are traditional treatments available that may help relieve the symptoms of SAD, including psychotherapy and antidepressant medications. These can take a long time and typically dont work as consistently as newer alternatives such as psychedelics for depression.
One of the most promising treatment options available today is ketamine therapy, which has been declared a major breakthrough in the treatment of depressive symptoms, particularly when it comes to treating individuals whose depression has been resistant to other therapies.
Seasonal affective disorder is tough to manage, but you don’t need to wait for the seasons to change to take control of how you’re feeling. Implement the tips above, and consider seeking out support from psychotherapy, medication, or ketamine therapy if you need help feeling better.