Seasonal affective disorder, aptly called SAD for short, is a type of mood disorder that can trigger symptoms of depression and occurs during a specific season each year. While it is typically linked to lack of sunlight, and is thus more common during the fall and winter months, springtime and summertime SAD is not unheard of either.
So how does this work exactly? How can our mood be affected by a season? Well, it certainly isn’t news that we tend to feel gloomier as the days get shorter. You can blame this on the fact that we’re getting less sunlight and, as a result, less serotonin. Why is this important? Well, serotonin is considered a “natural mood stabilizer,” and lower levels have been linked to depression.
Not to mention, the pineal gland in our brains start to produce more melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) in response to the shorter, darker days. And while melatonin is helpful for getting a good night’s sleep, the problem is that it’s also linked to mood. So an increase of this hormone can mean an increased risk of depression.
With serotonin and melatonin working against us as the days become shorter, it’s easy to see why those blues tend to hit at this time of year.
Winter Blues vs. SAD: What’s the difference?
While SAD is a “major depressive disorder” that can recur during a particular season, the winter blues are better described as a temporary mood shift. Sure we may feel a little more moody, a lot more fatigued, and not all that social — Can you blame us? We’re about to go into full hibernation mode! — but these moments of gloominess are simply that: moments. They come and go. What’s important to recognize is that if these moments are lasting, or are affecting our ability to enjoy life, we may have entered into the SAD zone.
It’s important to note that SAD is a type of depression, and must be treated as such. If your winter blues have morphed into full-fledged SAD, don’t ignore the symptoms. Your first step should be seeking help. If any of the following signs or symptoms speak to you, make an appointment with your family doctor or reach out to a mental health professional right away:
- Feeling down or hopeless more often than not
- Feelings of lethargy or fatigue that just won’t let up
- Inability to handle stress
- Disturbed sleep or oversleeping
- Avoiding friends or social activities you typically enjoy
- Lack of motivation and focus at work and at home
- Decreased interest in sexual activity or physical contact
- Increased desire for sweet or starchy foods; overeating
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts
Am I at risk?
The good news is that the stats are on your side. Only 5% of Americans and 2-3% of Canadians experience seasonal depression. It is interesting to note, however, that some people are more at risk of developing SAD than others. That said, it doesn’t mean that you’re immune to it if you don’t fall into one of these high-risk categories:
- Between the ages of 20 – 30
- Family history of mental health issues
- Do not live in close proximity to the equator
So whether or not you check off most (or all) of the boxes, it doesn’t hurt to do what you can to avoid the winter blues or the onset of SAD.
How to prevent seasonal depression
The good thing about SAD is that a little prevention can go a long way! So rather than wait for it to hit full force, why not do what you can to prevent it before you’re smack dab in the middle of the season’s darkest days? Try one (or all!) of the tips below:
- Adopt stress management tools that work for you. Whether you learn some new breathing techniques or start talking to a therapist, having a few stress busters under your belt is a great way to prepare yourself for tough times ahead. With that in mind, this may be the perfect time to try one of our 21-Day Healthy Reward Challenges geared towards improving your mental health! Click here for more info on the “Mental Wellbeing” and “Exercising Mindfulness” programs available free to League members. And did you know we also offer complimentary webinars such as “Strategies for Stress Management”?
- Exercise more often. A proven way to combat anxiety, depression and stress, as well as offering you a myriad of other health benefits, it certainly doesn’t hurt to up your exercise schedule in anticipation of the darker days to come. That’s right, flood your system with all those lovely endorphins and arm yourself against a depressive episode.
- Invest in light therapy. We know that dark days can be to blame for your dark mood, so prepare your home with something called a light box (a.k.a., a mood lamp). Just make sure that it is designed to treat SAD specifically, emits little to no UV light and has at least 10,000 lux. And keep in mind that in order for it to be most effective, you’ll need to use it every day for at least 20 minutes, and within an hour of waking up.
- Start meditating. Meditation is another great way to put your mental health first. But because it doesn’t always come naturally, we recommend getting the hang of it early so that you’re a pro by the time SAD hits. Practice makes perfect, after all! Not to worry, you can start slow — even 5-7 minutes a day has proven benefits to your mental health, and is a great way to train yourself for more challenging times ahead. Not sure how to start? Check out the Headspace App under the “Meditation and Mindfulness” section in the League Marketplace. Want something free? Watch the “Guided Meditation” webinar.
- Spend time outdoors. Get into the habit of getting outside while it’s still light out (or on those days when the sun makes an appearance). Go for a walk on your lunch break, take a trip somewhere warm, or if you live in a city, get off public transit a stop early and walk the rest of the way to work. Soak up as much natural light as you can and maybe, just maybe, you can trick your body into thinking it’s a sunnier season and avoid the onset of SAD altogether.
Think you may be suffering from the case of the winter blues or even SAD? Want more information on anything we’ve covered above or are interested in speaking to a therapist? Reach out to Health Concierge anytime!. And be sure to stay tuned for part 2 of this series, Effective Ways to Treat SAD Without Medication.