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The “Winter Blues” (SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder)

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What is SAD? 

As summer transitions into fall and the days grow shorter, some individuals begin to experience depression that had not been present in the spring and summer months. This shift in mood is referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Many identify SAD as “The Winter Blues” because it is characterized by the emersion of depression in Fall and Winter, often starting as a mild-to-moderate melancholy at the start of Fall, and progressing to a moderate-to-strong depression by Winter.

Is SAD more than “feeling blue”?

Symptoms of SAD include more than depression. In addition to changes in mood, many people experience changes in sleep patterns; people may have either an increase or decrease in the amount of sleep they get. SAD can also cause people to “not feel like themselves” and behave atypically, such as when they begin to prefer to be reclusive or isolated rather than social. Other symptoms include chronic fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Although the exact cause of SAD is unknown, it is believed to be related to the decreased daylight exposure that we experience at the onset of Fall. That is because sunlight aids in the production of hormones that help to regulate sleep-wake cycles, as well as energy and mood. So, as the daylight hours get shorter, some people may gradually begin to feel “quite dark”.

Sunlight’s role

We need to have adequate time in the sun to regulate our physiology. For example, many people know that the sun is an important source of vitamin D. However, sunlight also affects levels of specific hormones. One such hormone that is affected by sunlight is Serotonin. It is pretty important to have balanced Serotonin levels. Serotonin helps regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory. Another hormone affected by sunlight is melatonin. Melatonin production occurs when it is dark. So, with nightfall beginning earlier in the fall and winter… well, Melatonin production increases! And the increase in melatonin can lead to drowsiness and fatigue.  

Figuring out if you have SAD

It can be difficult to identify the symptoms associated with SAD, because we tend to attribute fatigue and problems sleeping with concrete sources that we believe will pass. Many people think they are getting a cold or the flu. Some people immediately write it off to “the start of the school year” and the “busyness of life” that subsumes us. Since the symptoms can seem subtle or nuanced, it is worth investigating even those mild symptoms. In fact, there is research that indicates early intervention is correlated with a more positive outcome. Awareness and taking action are the best ways to treat SAD. 

Some steps to managing SAD

-Create more structure in your daily life (psst… that’s different than giving yourself more to do). Through schedule and commitment, we can create order and routine. It’s really like a mathematical equation: Chaos and lack of focus increases SAD symptomatology. Structure provides experiences that can attenuate the symptoms of SAD. 

-Okay, you’re tired of hearing exercise is good for you. Well, exercise is good for not being as tired when you are dealing with SAD. So, to the best of your ability, exercise regularly (and definitely in the sunlight, if at all possible). If you are having trouble going for a bike ride, place a stationary bike next to a sunny window.

-You may be equally as annoyed to be told (yet again) that “diet is important”. Well, before you decide “I’ve heard this before,” read on: This is not about a trend or a lifestyle choice. It actually may not even be quite as challenging as you were thinking. You do not have to entirely overhaul your diet. You can make some small changes that make a big difference. For example, add omega-3 fats to your intake. Omega-3 fats have been shown to improve mood. If you happen to like fish, ask which ones are the best source of Omega-3’s.

-Spend as much time outside as possible during daylight. This can be hard if you are sensitive to cold or feeling anti-social. Just the same, any increase can help (i.e., walking around the block, working in your garden, etc).

-One thing we sometimes forget is that we can increase the amount of sunlight we get inside! Think about it, is there a better place to work or read? Maybe by the window, and maybe with the blinds fully open!

-When we cannot sit by the window or spend more time outside in daylight hours… well, there’s light therapy. Light therapy has been shown to dramatically impact melatonin levels. Both Dawn Simulators and Light Boxes are clinically proven to mimic sunlight.

-Pay attention to your sleep hygiene. People need to be mindful of what they do before bedtime, as well as what they do while they are lying in bed (i.e., watching the news, snacking, or looking at your mobile device can dramatically affect your physiology. The news can be so negative that we might experience an increase in adrenaline and cortisol. Snacks can play havoc with sugar levels, as well as stomach acid levels. Looking at your phone or tablet has been shown to disturb levels of Melatonin. 

-Mindfulness and Meditation. Yes, you keep saying you’ll try it… now, try it! It’s not just a trend or two overused buzzwords! The practices of mindfulness and meditation directly affect our physiology. Check this out: Meditation and mindfulness reduce adrenaline and cortisol! However, they also boost endorphins, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), and those two hormones we’ve talked about a lot, already… serotonin and melatonin. Whoa!

-Something people often overlook is the importance of connection and sharing. It’s easy to do when we can just text or FaceTime. But, there is something that is very important about actually seeing people in person. Much more than information is exchanged. Our physiology is deeply affected by the multi-sensory-layered connection that we experience in-person. When we are feeling melancholy, it may be especially difficult to socialize. However, if there is some way to increase time with those who you experience as positive and supportive, it will do wonders for your mood.

On a final note: SAD is serious, but manageable

Sometimes we cannot get ourselves to enact common-sense-suggestions (like the ones above). That’s okay. But, it’s still important to get help. Go to your doctor, or speak with a therapist. You might just need some extra support to begin getting through it. Frankly, even when people have a handle on SAD, they can still benefit from checking with their doctor or talking with a therapist.The fact is, though SAD is seasonal, anything that causes shifts in our mood can magnify the issues that we often overlook. For example, those who have had previous experiences with mood shifts might actually have a more complex experience that is triggered by SAD. Also, when people feel blue, they often encounter difficulties with communication (which, in turn, can lead to strain in relationships). Mood shifts can exacerbate insecurities, negative beliefs, and questions about our sense of Self. So, whether it’s purely SAD or other issues that result from SAD, it is important to be proactive.

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