With the upcoming change in season can often come a change in mood as well. While some people are eager for the cold weather of winter so they can put on their cozy sweaters and drink hot cocoa, for others the onset of winter can also be the onset of a depressed mood. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder characterized by depression that occurs at the same time every year. SAD can happen at any different time of year, but it is most prevalent in the winter.
The winter is such a common trigger for SAD largely due to shorter days that come with less sunlight. This change in light can cause an internal imbalance by disrupting melatonin production, circadian rhythms and neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for producing serotonin. The cold weather can also serve as a deterrent from healthy activities that serve as self-care during the other seasons. In addition, cold weather can enable people to more readily isolate, as bad weather can make it difficult to leave home. Some find the dreary weather to serve as a depiction of the dread they feel internally.
SAD presents in a similar fashion to major depressive disorder (MDD), and as such, should be taken as seriously as MDD would be. Whereas it is common that most people may feel frustrated or annoyed by another below 10 degree day, SAD is characterized by a more serious list of symptoms, such as fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, weight gain or loss, etc. If you find yourself experiencing these depressive symptoms each winter, it is likely you have suffer from SAD. Luckily, as is true with other mental health issues, SAD can be treated as well.
One of the most effective ways to combat the SAD is through light therapy. Because the lack of sunlight is a big trigger for SAD, an artificial light can serve to supplement the lack of natural sunlight you’re used to getting. Consider buying a light therapy lamp for your apartment/house and sit by the light whenever you are home. Many people find their SAD symptoms decrease within just a week or two of using the lamp everyday. If you work in a dark office everyday, consider adding a smaller lamp to your desk if that is possible.
While the lamp can be helpful during the winter months, there are actually things you can preemptively do now that will help improve your mood once the cold days set in. In fact, it is important to start establishing healthy habits now, rather than waiting until the seasonal affective disorder sets in. Associate therapist Madeline Weinfeld shares that because it often takes 60-90 days to really form and sustain a new habit, it is well serving to begin preparing in the fall for the self-care activities and practices you’d like to use throughout the winter. For example, exercise is a proven activity that can help improve mood and decrease symptoms of SAD. Though many people can recognize the positive effects of exercise during and after, it can be very difficult to motivate oneself to get to the gym. This concept applies all year long, but getting to the gym becomes increasingly difficult in cold weather, and even more difficult a snowy or windy day. Therefore, establishing the routine of going to the gym during the fall will make it more likely that one will continue going once winter arrives. Spending the next few weeks establishing a gym routine provides the proper time to make gym-going a habit, and all the more likely you will stick to it this winter. If exercise isn’t for you, apply this same mentality to other self-care practices you’ll be able to do regardless of weather, such as reading, journaling and/or meditating.
Last but not least, talk to your therapist (or consider finding a therapist that is the right fit (https://www.gatewaytosolutions.org/about-therapy/choosing-the-right-therapist/) about your SAD symptoms. Talk therapy will be invaluable as you navigate your mood during the winter months. As Madeline Weinfeld said about building habits in advance of winter being strategic, so too would be establishing a rapport with a therapist this fall before the winter begins. This way, you already feel comfortable with your provider by the time winter arrives, and you can begin strategizing together what will be the most effective ways to help you manage your SAD. Consider taking these steps now because though the winter season’s arrival is unstoppable, it is possible that you don’t have to suffer from seasonal affective disorder along with its arrival.