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As the weather gets colder, the natural world is starting to prepare for its long slumber through the winter. Animals pack on the pounds/kilograms, and rush around collecting food and preparing their shelters to keep in the warmth. Despite all of the activity around you, you might feel like your energy is dropping. It’s pretty common for people to feel sluggish and unmotivated when the seasons are changing. Pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock just one more time gets more and more appealing.
Did you ever wonder if it’s not just the colder mornings making you want to hide under the covers? Some people also experience feelings like sadness, moodiness or anxiety, and loss of interest in their day-to-day activities. Other people can never seem to sleep enough to feel rested, or have trouble concentrating. If this is starting to sound familiar, you may actually be feeling the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”).
So, what is SAD, and why does it happen? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?
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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and what are the symptoms?
SAD is a seasonal type of depression that comes and goes during the same seasons every year. Its symptoms are similar to that of major depression, including a sad, despairing mood that sticks around for most of the day, lasts for more than 2 weeks and can interrupt your social relationships, and performance at work or school. Other symptoms can include sleep problems, fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in work, hobbies or other people, and feeling useless, hopeless, excessively guilty, pessimistic or having low self-esteem.
Why does SAD happen?
While the specific cause is unknown, SAD may come on because of reduced levels in sunlight and vitamin D as the seasons change. This seasonal change can disrupt the release and proper functional of neurotransmitters that are important for your body including serotonin and melatonin.
The seasonal decrease in sunlight throws off your body’s circadian rhythm—your daily cycle of physical, mental and behavioural changes. Your body’s natural rhythm or pattern responds to light and darkness. And so, a change in light patterns can stimulate your body to shift its biological clock (or internal timing) and your circadian rhythm follows suit. Irregular circadian rhythms can result in health issues like sleep disorders, depression and seasonal affective disorder.
The drop in available sunlight can also cause our serotonin to drop, which may trigger depression. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that impacts your whole body, but also plays a key role in our mental health. It naturally stabilizes our moods and emotions, and contributes to reduced depression and anxiety.
The hormone melatonin is also sensitive to light. It helps to regulate the timing of your circadian rhythm, and changes in light patterns can block your body’s production of it.
All of these factors can have a negative effect on your mood and emotions, which may lead to SAD.
Who’s at risk of developing it?
As you can imagine, SAD is more common amongst people who live further away from the equator, to the north or south. That’s because they experience more significant shifts in seasons and available sunlight throughout the year.
Other risk factors include people who have a family or personal history of SAD or other forms of depression or bipolar disorder. Women also seem to be more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men, which follows the trend of higher depression diagnoses in women. Research shows that some reasons for this could be hormonal changes, other biological factors, inherited traits and personal life circumstances and experiences.
So, what can you do about feeling SAD?
If you think you’re feeling the symptoms of SAD, the first step would be to talk to your health professionals. Some of the more common treatments for SAD include medication, psychotherapy, light therapy and increasing vitamin D intake. You may also be able to reduce your symptoms by increasing exercise and spending more time outdoors.
If you think medication may be right for you, consult with your health care professionals. This could include a family doctor or general practitioner, psychologist, psychiatrist or psychotherapist, or potentially other professionals like your naturopath. Talking to a professional beforehand can help you make sure treatments are suited to what you’re experiencing and your underlying health conditions.
Connect with a professional through psychotherapy
Some people find relief through learning more about SAD, symptom management and how to prevent future episodes. Connecting with a counsellor or other type of psychological professional can be helpful.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common and effective technique used for depression. CBT is rooted in the idea that how we think and behave affects the way we feel. It can help you to change how you view the world around you and to find strategies to cope with the triggers of SAD. A therapist can help guide you through a process of behavioural activation, where you identify negative thought patterns and actions and replace them with more positive ones.
Speaking with a trained counsellor can give you space and time to examine the interpersonal side of your life. Some people find clarity about how the past affects their feelings by talking about it, and how they feel about themselves and others.
Boost your daily sunlight hours with light therapy
Light therapy can have a powerful anti-depressant effect for people experiencing SAD, and has been found to be effective for about 70% of SAD sufferers. Most people start to feel better within a week or two of regular therapy. It supplements the light you would have received from the sun, and helps to reset your biological clock.
The therapy involves exposing yourself to fluorescent light under specific conditions for anywhere from 15-60 minutes each day. Light therapy can involve sitting with a bright light while you eat breakfast, read or work. Or it could be using a dim light that slowly gets brighter like the sunrises to stimulates dawn in the morning. Your health professional can talk to you about the right type of light therapy for you and the steps to take.
Light therapy is gaining in popularity, and there are lots of different types of approved light units that you can find for your home. Northern Light Technologies, Inc., a Canadian manufacturer of Bright Light and Specialty Lighting Technology products, is one of the largest in the world. Check out their website to see the full range of light therapy products they offer. Other companies serving Canada and the US include: Day-Lights (Carex Health Brands), Litebook Company, Bio-Brite Inc. and Enviro-Med.
Increase your vitamin D supplies
As daylight dwindles, we have less and less opportunity to soak up beneficial sunlight and UV rays. This can reduce our body’s levels of vitamin D—a powerful ally in our physical and mental health.
Vitamin D increases our endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that respond to stimuli like stress or fear, desire or hunger. Endorphins can signal our body to minimize discomfort by blocking out pain or controlling our emotions. They can also give us feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and general wellbeing.
Increased level of vitamin D can help to improve your mood, depressive symptoms and SAD. There are lots of ways to boost your supplies, and we explored some of them including diet, supplementation, light therapy and getting outside in our recent post.
Keep up your mood with exercise
Regular exercise may help to boost your energy, and ease the depressive and anxiety related symptoms of SAD. It helps stimulate your body to produce endorphins, as well as other important mood regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine.
Exercise also lets your body practice its reaction to stresses when you’re not experiencing them so you can be better prepared to manage day-to-day stress when it does come up.
Exercise can include planned, structured and repetitive body movements, such as walking, running, yoga or weight lifting. Any physical activity that works your muscles and requires energy, including housework and gardening, can be beneficial for your health and mood.
So how much is enough? Well, 30 minutes or more per day for three to five days per week would be ideal. But shorter durations of 10-15 minutes at a time may also help. The best way to start is to look for exercise opportunities in your daily routines. Maybe run those errands by foot, or add a few extra flights of stairs before getting your morning coffee?
Conclusion: There are lots of strategies to ease your SAD symptoms
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a normal reaction to our changing seasons and lower levels of sunlight. It can be a real drag to go through winter feeling sluggish, irritable, low energy and moody. While SAD is not always avoidable, you can use strategies to improve your symptoms and experiences during the colder months.
Start by talking to your health professionals to figure out what types of treatment may work best for you. Sometimes medication is the path forward, but otherwise various treatments can tackle SAD through your body and mind. Some of your options include light therapy, vitamin D supplementation and exercise, or psychotherapy. Whichever route you take, just know that you’re not alone. And if you’re ready to seek solutions, there are lots of choices out there.
Do you have any other strategies for improving your SAD symptoms?