Sarah, a vibrant and energetic woman throughout most of the year, experiences a significant change in her mood and energy level as winter descends. For many years she thought it was post-holiday blues that sent her into a lethargic spiral. Sarah found herself sleeping more, gaining weight and dreading each new day.
After speaking with her healthcare professional, Sarah discovered Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was casting the heavy cloud over her life during the cold, dark months of winter, leaving her feeling lethargic, sad, and withdrawn.
Why Am I Feeling This Way Year After Year?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression related to changes in the seasons.
For most people suffering from SAD, symptoms begin and end at about the same time each year.
For Sarah, her symptoms begin in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping her energy and making her feel moody. She often attributed her irritability to the extra demands of decorating, entertaining and shopping around the holidays – when in fact SAD was already taking a toll on her mental well-being, making it challenging for her to find joy in her daily activities.
Like many sufferers, Sarah’s symptoms begin to resolve with the first warm days of spring.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder is less likely other times of the year, although it can happen in the spring and early summer,” says Elizabeth Dosoretz, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Founder and CEO of Elite DNA Behavioral Health.
What Causes SAD?
While there is no one single cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, medical professionals believe a lack of natural sunlight impacts the body’s biological clock and disrupts the circadian rhythms, our natural sleep/wake patterns, resulting in mood changes.
“SAD creates a dynamic interplay between ourselves and the environment,” notes Dosoretz.
The reduced sunlight has also been linked to lower levels of Vitamin D and serotonin, the brain chemical that plays a role in regulating happiness, sleep, sexual behavior and hunger.
The change in seasons may also disrupt the body’s balance of the hormone melatonin, which plays a role in mood and sleep patterns.
How Do I Know If My Mood Changes Are SAD?
Unlike other forms of depression which affect sleep patterns in multiple ways, individuals experiencing SAD typically feel a dramatic need to sleep more than usual. Sarah joked for several years that she felt the need to hibernate when the days grew shorter.
Additional signs and symptoms of SAD may include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue or feeling of sluggishness
- Lack of interest in normal activities
- Craving carbohydrates, overeating and weight gain
- Isolation, apathy, or lack of motivation
In severe cases, since there can be an overlap with general depression, individuals suffering from SAD may have thoughts of guilt, hopelessness, or worthlessness.
As with any form of depression, thoughts of suicide should be a red flag to seek immediate professional intervention.
Behavioral Strategies and Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Treatment for SAD generally begins with behavioral modifications to prevent the symptoms before they even begin.
Consider the following:
- Mark your calendar to ramp up exposure to natural light as the days grow shorter before your symptoms typically begin.
- Schedule time for a walk outdoors early in the day to increase your Vitamin D levels.
- Consider a sunrise clock or dawn simulation device to gradually increase your exposure to light before you wake each morning.
- Use a light box, or phototherapy device, to mimic natural outdoor light for 30 minutes once you are up each morning if you’re unable to get outdoors.
- Exercise to boost your mental health by reducing cortisol levels and increasing endorphins, the feel-good hormones.
- Stay connected to friends and family to avoid loneliness and sadness.
- Stick to a routine to reduce anxiety and stress.
- Explore cognitive behavioral therapy. This can also be helpful if you have a tendency toward other forms of depression.
- Consider medications like antidepressants to combat the symptoms of SAD.
“If you know you’re someone who has had this in the past, and you’re likely to again have Seasonal Affective Disorder, what we suggest are behavioral modifications such as light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy – and of course if it gets to the point where it is serious enough, or it’s impacting you enough, there is also medication management,” says Dosoretz.
Overcoming Seasonal Affected Disorder
During the fall and winter months, it’s not uncommon for people to experience some of the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
“Whether it’s severe, or just some of the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder, what is really, really important is that people understand this is not just the blues and it’s not just okay to sit at home and feel bad,” says Dosoretz.
“We have a team of people here who are ready to help. Whether it’s the holidays, whether it’s summertime or the winter, all of these have dynamic interplay and do impact people differently.”
The most important thing to remember is there are many options for treatment to help you enjoy robust mental health year-round.
With guidance from a mental health therapist, Sarah invested in light therapy, sought support from loved ones, and practices self-care strategies to help navigate the winter months with a renewed zest for life. She’s fallen in love with her outdoor walks on crisp winter mornings and finds they give her the boost of energy she needs to enjoy the day.
Finding The Help You Need
If you suspect you or a loved one is suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, consider seeking help from one of our licensed professionals.
With many locations throughout the state of Florida, we can connect you with a provider to discuss various strategies and help you find what works for you.
We also offer confidential telehealth sessions through Zoom, where you can be assured of getting a therapeutic experience just like you’d have in the office.
In person, or virtually, our mental and behavioral health experts are here to help you get through every season of the year with joy and happiness.
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