Many people living in Northern climates struggle with seasonal affective disorder with several individuals finding that their symptoms peak in mid-winter, when exposure to daylight is less. Symptoms often start through the fall, worsen in January/February, and then decrease again in the spring as the days get longer. If you are aware that your mood changes with the seasons or know someone who does, read on!
Seasonal affective disorder (often called “SAD”) is a form of depression that comes and goes depending on the time of year. There are 2 main types of the disorder:
- Fall-onset SAD: This type of SAD starts in late fall and goes away in the spring and summer. Some people call it “winter depression.” It is the most common form of SAD.
- Spring-onset SAD: This type of SAD starts in the spring and goes away in the fall and winter. Spring-onset SAD is much less common than fall-onset SAD.
What causes SAD? No one knows for certain. It does seem to be associated with disruptions in biological rhythms – those 24-hour cycles that are driven by exposure to light and dark and that contribute too many important aspects of body function. The amount of natural light that we experience also influences levels of serotonin and melatonin, two brain chemicals that influence mood and sleep.
What are the symptoms of SAD? Symptoms of SAD can be the same as regular (non-seasonal depression). Depressed people feel down most of the time for at least 2 weeks. They also have at least 1 of these 2 symptoms:
- They no longer enjoy or care about doing the things they used to like to do;
- They feel sad, down, hopeless, or cranky most of the day, almost every day.
However, the symptoms are different depending on which form of SAD a person has. People with fall-onset SAD tend to:
- Sleep more than usual;
- Have a bigger appetite than usual, especially for sweet or starchy foods, like pastries or rice;
- Gain weight.
People with spring-onset SAD have symptoms that are more like those of typical depression. They tend to:
- Sleep less than usual;
- Have a smaller appetite;
- Lose weight.
Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better? — Yes. Some people feel better if they exercise. Even you do not feel like it, try to do something active for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. Also, if you have fall-onset SAD, make sure you get exposed to as much light as possible. Here are some ways you can do that:
Follow good sleep habits – That means that you:
- Sleep only long enough to feel rested and then get out of bed;
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day;
- Do not try to force yourself to sleep. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and try again later;
- Have coffee, tea, and other foods that have caffeine only in the morning;
- Avoid alcohol in the late afternoon, evening, and bedtime;
- Avoid smoking, especially in the evening;
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool, quiet, and free of reminders of work or other things that cause you stress;
- Solve problems you have before you go to bed;
- Exercise several days a week, but not right before bed;
- Avoid looking at phones or reading devices (“e-books”) that give off light before bed. This can make it harder to fall asleep.
- Take walks outside during the day, so that you get some sun;
- In your bedroom, put a lamp on a timer and have it turn on in the early morning, even before the sun comes out;
- Get a “dawn-simulating” lamp, which brightens gradually and turns on before the sun comes out;
- Eat a balanced diet.
When should I see my doctor? If you have symptoms of SAD, see a doctor, nurse, or counselor. If your symptoms are more severe, there are other treatments to consider and remember whatever treatment you try, keep in mind that it sometimes takes patience to find a treatment that works for you. The key is to work with your doctor, nurse, or counselor, and to keep him or her informed about any problems.