Winter is coming, and sometimes that disrupts more than just the temperature outside. Around 500,000 Americans will deal with a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this year. Another 20% develop a milder form of SAD, often times called the “winter blues” or seasonal depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is, in fact, a type of depression. For most people it starts sometime in the fall and lasts through the winter. It’s peak months are in December, January and February. A common symptom of SAD is that it starts and ends at the same time every year. Less often, it starts in the spring and continues through the summer.
How Does SAD Affect Me?
Seasonal Affective Disorder can make you feel moody, grumpy and unmotivated. Symptoms start off mild and progress with the seasons. Symptoms of fall and winter Seasonal Affective Disorder include irritability, tiredness or low energy, relationship problems, hypersensitivity to rejection, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, oversleeping, cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain. The symptoms for spring and summer SAD are fewer and include feeling sad, trouble sleeping, poor appetite and agitation or anxiety.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder are still unknown, but one factor may be the reduced level of sunlight. The lack of sun may disrupt your internal clock and cause a drop in serotonin or a change in melatonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects your mood while melatonin is a chemical that affects sleep patterns. Melatonin is produced at a higher level in the dark, so when the days become shorter, the production is increased.
Who Else is Affected by Seasonal Depression?
Those most commonly affected are female, between the ages of 15 and 55, have family members who deal with SAD, are clinically depressed or suffer from bipolar disorder and live far from the equator. The age range is young because studies have shown that SAD decreases as you age. The most common ages are between 18 and 30.
Luckily for those suffering from the winter blues, there are several things you can do besides therapy and medication to keep you motivated this winter.
Opening blinds, removing branches that block sunlight and sitting closer to bright windows can all help improve Seasonal Affective Disorder and your mood.
2. Go Outside
It has been shown that spending time outside, even when it’s cold, can help with SAD symptoms. Taking a walk within the first two hours of getting up is a great way to get fresh air and light, even if it’s cloudy. Natural light is much more potent than artificial light.
3. Spend Time with Friends and Family
Reconnecting with old friends, taking a new class or joining a support group can all help alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Catching up with friends, or making new ones, will help you feel less alone during the winter months. A support group can help you find other ways to feel better during the winter.
4. Stick to a Schedule
Staying in a routine will help your body get more sleep. This way, you can also plan to get scheduled amounts of sunlight everyday. Eating at normal times will also help you manage a diet or watch your winter weight.
5. Eat Wisely
Sweets and simple carbs, like white bread and white rice, all cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin and then send you spiraling down when it’s all used up. Bright colored veggies, fruits and beans are better carbs to help deal with SAD. They are absorbed by your body slowly which gets rid of the peaks and valleys of other foods. Foods to have on hand during the winter include popcorn, oatmeal, nuts, egg whites, peanut butter, vegetables, fruits, whole grain crackers and bread, deli turkey and cottage cheese.
Physical activity reduces stress and anxiety, both of which can make SAD worse. Getting in shape can also help with self-esteem, which can put you in a happier mood.
Volunteering can make you feel like you have a purpose. It’s also a great way to meet people and make a difference in your community or religious organization. Helping out those who are less fortunate might help put things into perspective.
8. Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol is a depressant, and as such, can harm your brain. Drinking too much can lead to bad decisions, which may make you feel even worse later. Always consume alcohol in moderation.
9. Mind and Body Therapy
Things like acupuncture, yoga, meditation and massage therapy can all help you reduce the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
10. Know When SAD is More Than Seasonal
If your feelings of depression last more than one season, it might be time to talk to your doctor. Major symptoms of depression include feeling sad most of the day almost everyday, feeling hopeless or worthless, having no energy, losing interest in things you found enjoyable, problems sleeping, changes in appetite, feeling slow or agitated, difficulty concentrating and thoughts of death or suicide.
If you are still feeling depressed after trying these tips, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Learn more about the Adult Mental Health Services at UnityPoint Health - Des Moines.
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