How Seasonal Affective Disorder Could Affect You

Nov 17th, 2020

If your mood and energy level sink when the days get shorter, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)—sadness or depression that typically lasts during the winter months and usually improves at the start of spring.

While the causes of SAD aren’t completely understood, it’s clear the condition is triggered by reduced exposure to sunlight, which may reset our internal clocks and hormones. SAD affects women more than men, but we don’t yet know why.

Different than the “winter blues” many of us feel when the days are darkest, SAD is a serious condition that should be treated by a professional. Symptoms may be exacerbated this winter by the loneliness of social distancing during COVID-19.

Common Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Any of SAD’s symptoms – and combinations of them – could be caused by other physical and psychological conditions. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your health care provider:

  • Aches and pains you can’t explain
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings for carbs, sweets and starches
  • Decreased focus and concentration
  • Extreme fatigue and lack of energy
  • Despair
  • Increased drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Irritability or anger 
  • Loss of interest in socializing and usual activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Sadness
  • Trouble sleeping or getting back to sleep
  • Weight gain 

If you feel suicidal or hopeless, reach out for help now by calling 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments

Your doctor may prescribe one or both of these SAD treatment options:

  • Bright Light or Phototherapy: These special fixtures create intensely bright light that can lower your body’s desire to release melatonin, and help you feel more alert and less sad. Dawn simulators, which mimic the light of the rising sun, can help you wake up more easily during those dark winter mornings – and help you start the day in a better mood.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This instructive form of therapy teaches you techniques to reduce negative behaviors, mindsets and thoughts. Studies show CBT can be very helpful in managing SAD.

Beyond these formal treatments, there are other things you can do to ease SAD symptoms.

  • Improve interior light. You can get additional benefits by improving the practical and natural lighting in our home or office. Since lack of sunlight exposure may be the cause, it's important to stay around windows and bright lights to lessen triggers or symptoms.
  • Get moving. Physical activity has multiple benefits for people with SAD. Exercise helps address the weight gain often associated with the condition. And being active reduces stress by releasing endorphins and serotonin, and by reducing your heart rate. 
  • Participate in hobbies and experiences. Participating in hobbies and activities you enjoy, and maybe even trying something new, is good medicine.
  • Go outdoors. Even if it’s overcast, you get some relief from SAD just by being outside for a few minutes of daylight every day. Just sitting on the porch can improve your mood and energy, but when you combine exercise with your outdoor time, you get twice the benefit! 
  • Reduce stress. Keeping stress at bay reduces the impact of depression, anxiety and sleep loss. Find a few minutes each day for quiet time, meditation or yoga; or ask for assistance with tasks or issues you’re worried about.
  • Eat better. It’s okay to indulge cravings with a small portion, but you’ll get better results from eating healthier foods like oatmeal, walnuts, omega-3-rich fish, and bananas. Bonus: Healthier eating also helps manage your weight. 
  • Be social. It’s more difficult during the time of social distancing due to COVID-19 but staying connected (or reconnecting) with friends and family is crucial to keep your spirits up. Technology like e-mail and social media can help you stay connected.

Seasonal Affective Disorder responds well to intervention. Talk to your health care provider about the seasonal changes you experience

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional consultation, diagnosis or treatment; it is provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied. 

Always consult a health care provider if you have specific questions about any medical matter, and seek professional attention immediately if you think you or someone in your care may be suffering from a health care condition.

Charla Anderson, Oceans Healthcare Texas regional director of clinical operations, contributed to a version of this article as it originally appeared on the Philips Lifeline blog.

 

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