Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): How to Keep the Winter Blues Away
Adam Goodman is a former Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships and a licensed attorney.
Every year as Thanksgiving passes and Christmas creeps up, many people start to notice a change in how they feel. This change almost always coincides with the beginning of colder weather and shorter days. For many, this change is due to Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD. SAD is a type of depression that usually occurs from mid or late fall through winter.
Like other mental health issues, there are a number of risk factors associated with SAD. If these risk factors are present in an individual, it could indicate an increased likelihood of developing the condition.
Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed, but men have more severe symptoms. This could be due to a lower level of tolerance for emotional distress in men.
Family or Personal History
According to researchers, any family history of depression can increase the likelihood that you develop SAD in the winter. Similarly, if you have a history of bipolar disorder or clinical depression, your chances of developing the condition could be heightened.
Symptoms and Causes
Symptoms include mild to severe depression, weight gain, anxiety, lethargy, hopelessness, exhaustion, increased hunger, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, and an increased desire for carbohydrates.
Researchers are still only able to generate hypotheses as to what causes SAD. One theory discusses how the lack of sunlight may upset sleep-wake cycles and other circadian rhythms. Another theory is that lack of light causes problems with serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Other theories speak to the change in barometric pressure and how this could decrease melatonin production and exacerbate mood changes.
Because SAD can look like other mental health disorders, it is important to consult a doctor and/or therapist to receive a proper diagnosis.
For many people living with SAD, light therapy is the most helpful treatment. Light therapy can take many forms. You should get as much light as possible into your home by adding more lamps, lighting candles, and opening window shades.
You can also buy specifically designed lamps that mirror sunlight and put them in your home or in your work space. By duplicating the natural light of the sun, it’s possible to lower the effect of SAD symptoms.
Exercise can help fight off the symptoms as well. If you can achieve thirty minutes of exercise a day, preferably outdoors, you can decrease SAD symptoms. The mood-lifting effects of exercise combine with the effects of sunlight when you exercise outdoors.
One of the symptoms of SAD is an increased craving for carbohydrates. However, leaning into these cravings can actually increase negative symptoms. Decreasing carbs and replacing them with high-protein meals can help lift some of the fog.
Check with your physician about taking a multi-vitamin supplement that can also alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD.
For some people, SAD is debilitating and leads to limits in functioning. In those cases, seeking a medical or psychiatric consult is advisable as SAD can be treated with the same medications used to treat depression, including SSRIs.
Adam Goodman, JD, MFT is a former Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships with experience in treating anxiety, depression, career counseling, and couples counseling. Request an appointment today.