November 2015

The SAD Season

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

For many people, autumn means relief from oppressive summer heat and humidity. Some experience a sudden surge of energy and vitality, complete with urges to fling open the windows and/or get outside and play.

For me, the first hint of fall signals the beginning of the SAD season, my sunny disposition working overtime to compete with the early evening darkness and dreary days to come. Falling temperatures, cloudy days and the end of daylight savings time correlate with a drop in energy, an interior heaviness and a tendency to hibernate indoors. Apparently, I am not alone.

According to a Cleveland Clinic report, over a half million of the U.S. population suffers from winter seasonal affective disorder (SAD), while an additional 10 to 20 percent may suffer from a milder form of winter doldrums.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that occurs each year at the same time, usually starting in fall and worsening in winter. It is thought to be triggered by the reduced level of sunlight, which can cause a drop in serotonin (a brain chemical that affects mood) and/or disrupt the balance of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include loss of pleasure and energy, feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and cravings for sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. What differentiates SAD from other forms of depression is that it goes away in the spring and summer months.

While I’ve struggled with seasonal mood changes for most of my adult life, two winters ago, I almost didn’t make it to see the azaleas bloom. After an unusually cold, rainy January and February, by mid-March, I was so deep in the sea of sadness that I wept over the newspaper each morning—and those were the good days when I could force myself out of bed to even open the door to get the newspaper. Thoughts of suicide danced in my head.

Looking back, I can clearly see how I reached that point. My symptoms are classic and can be traced to the changes in light and temperature. Add in a touch of physical pain and a few personal circumstances, and the scene was set for the perfect storm. Fortunately, someone threw me a life preserver just in the nick of time. Spring came, I got well, and I even got through the next winter without a major episode of SAD.

While turning the clock back and feeling that first chill in the air still prompts a slight sense of dread, I am now equipped to cope with Old Man Winter’s impending assault. If you or someone you love is prone to seasonal sadness, here are five strategies I have learned for making it through to spring:

Let the sunshine in. When the sun makes an appearance, get outside as much as possible. Open blinds and curtains, trim back trees and branches to let in as much light as possible. When natural sunlight is scarce, light up your indoor environment by installing bulbs that most closely mimic daylight in fixtures and lamps throughout your home. You might also consider a dawn simulator, a device that gradually brightens over a set period of time, helping you wake more naturally and get out of bed. Many SAD sufferers are advised to invest in light therapy. While light boxes can be purchased without a prescription, it’s best to consult a physician or other mental health professional who can guide you towards the best product and teach you how to use it effectively.

Get your blood circulating. As with other forms of depression, exercise can help. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins that can reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep and even boost self-esteem. If it’s too cold or dreary to exercise outside, work out on a treadmill, stationary bike or other cardio machine, preferably near a window at the gym or in your home. Group exercise offers an extra benefit by providing opportunity to connect and socialize with others, helping to alleviate feelings of isolation that often go hand in hand with depression.

Nourish your mind and body. Just as nutritional deficiencies contribute to physical illness, poor eating habits can also trigger or exacerbate depression. Vitamin D deficiency is common, and should be a consideration when you find yourself in an energy slump or mental funk—especially if it occurs during fall and winter months. Ask your doctor to test your levels and suggest appropriate dietary supplements. Meanwhile, focus on eating well in general, while reducing your intake of refined foods, sugary snacks and processed items. Watch your alcohol intake, too. Alcohol is deceiving in that it can temporarily be “your friend,” seeming to help you relax or find comfort. But in the long run, alcohol is your worst enemy, intensifying the symptoms of depression and plunging you into deeper despair.

Stabilize your body clock. Symptoms of SAD often include disrupted sleep and/or difficulty waking in the morning. Many SAD sufferers also gain weight in winter. Maintaining a daily routine improves sleep, which helps ease seasonal depression. Keeping a regular schedule also exposes you to light more consistently and predictably, while eating at regular intervals helps you stay on track nutritionally and avoid packing on pounds.

Ask for help. SAD is an illness and not a figment of your imagination. When dreary days and long, dark nights threaten to color your whole world gray, make an appointment with your physician and/or ask for a referral to an appropriate mental health resource. Help is available in the form of talk therapy, anti-depressants or a combination of treatments, including the above at-home interventions. Be sure to reach out to friends and family members, too, who may not know you are suffering. Ask them to support you in seeking the professional intervention you need while making some lifestyle changes to help yourself.

Don’t brush off a cyclical funk and allow it to steal your joy. Take steps to keep your mind healthy and your mood steady for a happier fall and winter.

Remember: the azaleas are coming! 

Get Help

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
Helpline available Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ET

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline, available 24/7

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