Seasonal depression, sometimes called seasonal affective disorder or SAD, is a type of depression that can occur during the winter months. Occasionally, SAD will occur during the spring or summer months, but this is unusual. Most cases of seasonal depression begin in the fall and continue until spring or, in some cases, early summer. Read on to find out what seasonal depression is and how it is treated.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal depression is a type of depression that occurs during the colder months. It can be mild, moderate or severe, just like any other type of depression. In severe cases, it can even cause suicidal ideation or attempted suicide. Most of the time, untreated seasonal depression will begin to improve on its own once the weather starts to warm up, but sometimes it will extend into full-blown depression.
Symptoms of seasonal depression include the following (during the winter months):
- Lethargy and fatigue
- Sleeping too much or, in some cases, insomnia
- Eating too much or, in some cases, loss of appetite
- Isolation / wanting to be alone
- Sadness / crying / feeling hopeless
- Not wanting to go to work or school
One way to know if you have seasonal depression (as opposed to full-blown depression) is that your mood will begin to lift when the seasons change. For most people, this means that by late spring, they will start feeling better. For those with seasonal depression that occurs in the summer, they will begin to feel better once the autumn months begin.
Why Does It Tend to Occur in the Winter?
Most commonly, seasonal depression begins in the fall or winter. The reasons for this vary and nobody knows exactly which factors are responsible in every case. One common cause is the lack of natural daylight during the winter. Many people leave the house for work or school while it is dark out and also go home in the dark, thanks to the shorter days. This is more pronounced in some areas of the country than in others. The further north you live, the more likely it is that you will have fewer hours of sunlight during the day. This lack of sunlight can cause low levels of vitamin D and also low levels of serotonin production; both of these deficiencies can cause symptoms of depression.
Another reason that some people develop depression in the winter is that the holidays can be sad and stressful. While many enjoy family gatherings, gifts, and time spent with loved ones, other people may not have family nearby. Others might have lost a loved one during this time of year. Money might be too tight to allow for gifts, special foods, and the various events that take place during the holiday season. These factors can cause depression in people who are experiencing them.
What Are Some Lifestyle Changes That Might Help?
The good news is that there are some lifestyle changes that can help people who suffer from seasonal depression. These include:
Getting Sunlight – The main recommended change is that you spend some time in the sun each day. This can be easier said than done, but if you can, take some time during the mid-morning or at lunchtime to go outdoors. If it is cold, you can bundle up and spend a few minutes in the sun. Many people begin to feel relief when they spend time outdoors during the winter months.
Exercise Regularly – Another is to make sure you are getting some exercise each day. Exercise will help your brain release endorphins, which are some of the feel-good hormones that you might be lacking during these cold winter months. Going for a walk each day can allow you to both get exercise and spend time in the sun. You can also join a gym, go to an indoor pool, or take a dance class. Try to get 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
Vitamin D Supplements – Vitamin D is sometimes called “the sunshine vitamin” because people synthesize it in response to the sun’s rays. During the winter months, we create less vitamin D, and this can cause symptoms of depression. Talk to your doctor before taking supplements because you can actually overdose on this fat-soluble vitamin. If you have a deficiency, however, it can help you find relief.
Healthy Diet – Finally, be sure that you are eating a healthy diet. During the holidays, it can be easy to ingest too much sugar and fat and not eat enough healthy foods. Focus your diet on whole grains, low-fat protein sources, healthy fats, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
What Other Treatments Are There?
You might be prescribed light box therapy if you have seasonal depression. This is a device that will expose you to rays that are similar to those produced by the sun. Using a light box for a prescribed amount of time each day can help you feel better during the dark fall and winter.
Your doctor might also prescribe antidepressant medications to use only during the winter months. It is important that you don’t go off of the medications suddenly when spring or summer arrives, however, so work with your doctor to determine how long you will take the medications and how you will wean off of them.
Therapy can also help you learn to cope with your feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one type of counseling that can bring you some relief from your depression symptoms. It is most effective when combined with medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of the two. Counseling can also help you if the cause of your seasonal depression is circumstantial, such as the loss of a loved one around the holiday season.
Seasonal affective disorder does not have to ruin your holiday season or make you feel miserable for half the year. If lifestyle changes don’t help you enough, there are other treatments available. Talk to your primary care doctor, who can screen you for seasonal depression and refer you to a specialist if necessary. A combination of therapies can help you learn to look forward to, rather than dread, the fall and winter months.