December has come to an end and we are almost halfway through January, which means winter has officially settled in. Snow has started to fall in some areas and the days are getting progressively shorter. Some of us are starting to deal with low moods, slumped energy levels, and a range of other symptoms. If those feelings come along every year with a certain season, you could be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder or Seasonal Depression.
This year, Covid-19 has put a lot of mental and emotional strain on plenty, from the stress of massive changes in our day-to-day lives to coping with quarantine. It has been tough. But that does not mean we have to give in, if anything we must push harder to get through these times.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or seasonal depression, is a major depressive disorder characterized by depression that is affected by seasons. Most commonly people associate it with the winter months, however, it could be associated with any other season. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) specifies that in order to diagnose SAD “depression should be present only at a specific time of year (e.g., in the fall or winter) and full remission occurs at a characteristic time of year (e.g., spring).”
The exact cause of seasonal depression has not been pinpointed, however, there have been several hypothesized causes. These include :
- Changes in the Circadian Rhythm; The body’s Circadian Rhythm, or the ‘body’s clock’, is responsible for regulating your sleep, mood, and other functions. It can be disrupted by the shorter days and a decrease in the amount of sunlight available causing major disruptions in body function.
- Increased Melatonin levels; Melatonin is a hormone produced by a tiny part of your brain known as the pineal gland (as shown below) in the brain that is responsible for the sleep-wake cycle, it is produced when we spend time in the dark. The longer nights during winter may cause your body to produce excess melatonin, playing part in the symptomatology of SAD.
- Decreased Serotonin levels; the decreased amount of sunlight during the winter days will cause a drop in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in mood, learning, memory, and various other functions. A decrease in serotonin can therefore cause a decrease in mood and concentration.
Signs and Symptoms
SAD can present with multiple symptoms; some physical and others psychological. If you find yourself having a range of the symptoms listed below you might be dealing with seasonal depression:
First and foremost, you should remember that you are not alone, and that a lot of us deal with SAD. According to a 2016 study conducted in Groningen in the Netherlands, “the prevalence of SAD is between 1% and 10% of the population”. That’s up to 30 million individuals in the United States alone!
Now here are a few tips to tackle seasonal depression and make your days a bit more jolly.
- Seek out a Professional
- Seek out friends and family
- Light therapy
- Layer up and eat warm food
- Stick to a schedule
- Take a vacation
- Supplementation (vitamin D)
1. Seek out a Professional
SAD is a type of depression after all, and seeking out professional help is important, especially if you cannot cope with your own symptoms. Speaking to a professional can help you understand SAD better and help you find ways to cope with your symptoms. You can go to your family doctor or general practitioner first, they are well equipped to help you deal. However, if you feel like you need more help then you can go to a psychiatrist who can evaluate your state and then give you therapy sessions or medication to help accordingly.
2. Seek out friends and family
During the winter months, we tend to stay indoors longer, which means our social interactions become less and less frequent. Nowadays with Covid-19 keeping us indoors and limiting our social interactions even further, we must turn to alternatives. Picking up the phone and calling your mom or video-calling your loved ones might do the trick.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the causes of SAD is decreased exposure to sunlight. Although the sun might only shine for a couple of hours a day, try to make the most of them. Even if you cannot leave your house, sitting on your balcony or cracking the window open will do wonders. My friends like to go out for a walk during the day, that way they put in some exercise and get the sun exposure they need.
4. Light therapy
If you live somewhere where getting sunlight is harder than you would like, another solution is investing in a sun lamp or a dawn simulator. These devices use light therapy, or phototherapy, to supplement natural sunlight into your daily life. Light therapy has been shown to be effective within a few days to a few weeks of regular use. The duration and amount of light you need can be determined by a professional, as some people might need a higher dosage than others.
A sun lamp, or a SAD lamp, is a special type of lamp that can emit up to 10 times the intensity of regular sunlight. A sunlamp can be used for the treatment of seasonal depression, jet lag, and other conditions. The advantage of a sunlamp is that you only need to sit in front of it for half an hour to an hour while doing other activities to boost your circadian rhythm and effectively your mood. Here is a list of the best sunlamps to purchase.
On the other hand, a dawn simulator is a device that acts like an alarm waking you up with increasing amounts of light. It is much easier to use than a sun lamp as the regular exposure in the morning saves you the hassle of having to designate time to sit in front of a sunlamp. The light from a dawn simulator enters your retina through your eyelids and effectively wakes you up just like sunlight does. Here are a few dawn simulators to choose from.
Exercise can do wonders in many aspects. Going for a jog outside during the day is most beneficial as you get exposed to sunlight while you’re at it. But that does not mean that you shouldn’t exercise just because you can’t go outside, exercise indoors can also do wonders. Exercise releases endorphins in the body temporarily improving mood and effectively offsetting the weight gain caused by SAD. Interestingly, many studies conducted in relation to depression have found that those dealing with depression have a smaller hippocampus compared to those who aren’t. Exercise has been shown to increase nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, alleviating some of the symptoms associated with depression.
6. Layer up and Eat warm food
Staying warm can be a great solution to seasonal depression. Wearing multiple fuzzy layers and turning on the heater can do wonders to our body chemistry. Studies have shown that lower temperatures can cause us to want to slow down and not do much throughout the day. Therefore the best temperature to keep your house at is within the range of 18C and 21C (between 64 and 70F). Warm food can also help keep your body warm and merry on the inside; soups, hot chocolate, and all that good comfort food.
7. Stick to a schedule
Keeping a full schedule will keep you busy and allow time to pass easier. Doing things, even if you aren’t in the mood to do them, will eventually bring you great pleasure. No matter how unlikely it feels, you might feel much better once you’re in the midst of it. Keeping a schedule also helps with your sleeping habits. One of the symptoms of SAD is hypersomnia or insomnia, keeping a tight schedule knowing when to sleep and when to wake up might help with the symptoms of seasonal depression.
8. Take a vacation
Just like birds like to migrate during the winter months to warmer climates, maybe we should fly away too! Plan a vacation if you have the time and finances, not only will it give you a break from your everyday responsibilities, but the warmer climates can help battle the biological causes of SAD. Even if you end up travelling for just a few days within those winter months, their effect will last for at least a few weeks afterwards.
9. Supplementation (vitamin D)
Giving your body the nutrients and vitamins it needs is vital to maintaining a healthy body and healthy mind. Multiple studies have researched the effect of different supplements in regards to mood. One of those studies encompassed the role of vitamin D in depression. They found that “Vitamin D supplementation (≥800 I.U. daily) was somewhat favorable in the management of depression”. Therefore, it might be beneficial to test your vitamin D levels at your next doctor’s appointment and get supplementation if required.
Although you might be suffering from seasonal depression, try to remember that there are things that bring you joy during the winter months too. If it is sitting with your family, enjoying a warm drink next to your fireplace, or simply the holidays. Keeping a cheerful attitude and seeking help when we need it are key to getting through these tough times. Remember we are all here to help each other, and a positive attitude goes a long way.
“Positive thinking is powerful thinking. If you want happiness, fulfillment, success and inner peace, start thinking you have the power to achieve those things. Focus on the bright side of life and expect positive results. ”
– Germany Kent