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Shining Light on Seasonal Affective Disorder

By Hannah Slattery, LPC

The winter brings longer periods of darkness, less sunshine, and stretches of staying indoors. Some people look forward to the snow and others don’t. Here in Chicagoland, our winters are full of fluctuating (mainly very cold) temperatures, many different celebrations and traditions, and all of this can lead to those winter blues.

Differentiating between feelings of sadness during the winter months versus a clinical diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be crucial to understanding when to seek help.

SAD is a clinical diagnosis that can interfere with your daily functioning and doesn’t only revolve around winter months, it can happen in the summer too! An average of 1-9% of American adults struggle with SAD whereas 10-20% feel the symptoms of winter blues.

Knowing the difference between winter blues and SAD is important as the ways to combat them are different. The symptoms of SAD can look different for each people but most struggle with:

  • Overeating

  • Craving foods that contain complex carbohydrates

  • Weight gain

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day

  • Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy

  • Withdrawal and isolation from loved ones

  • Inability to focus and concentrate on work performance and household tasks

  • Lethargy and fatigue

  • Hopelessness

  • Suicidal thoughts

The winter blues can affect many people and normally only occur during the winter months due to a drastic lifestyle change. People who are affected can feel unmotivated, especially in the mornings, and have trouble sleeping all together. These are normal symptoms of changing weather conditions and are temporary. If you are struggling with the winter blues there are some simple ways to encourage a boost in mood

  1. Get your body moving. In any small way that you can, whether you already have a gym membership, watch yoga videos in your living room or just spend time walking around the mall, do something productive for your physical health.

  2. Stick to a sleep routine. Due to the time adjustment and daytime being shorter it is common to have a dysregulated sleep cycle, attempt to create a sleep plan that works best for your body to get ample sleep.

  3. Add some more laughter to your life. Watching a comedy or your favorite comedian will help boost your spirits. Laughter can add a little more happiness to your life.

  4. Make sure you're fueling your body. If you’re starting to feel more sluggish, definitely take into account how you have been eating. Water is still necessary for the winter due to the dry climate and because of the cold we need to add more nutrients to our diet

  5. Spend quality time with people who make you feel good. Host a game night or challenge yourself to socialize more around the office. It’s easy to hide away during the winter but people who are safe can be healing too.

  6. Give yourself a to-do list or something manageable to accomplish. If you have a cluttered room, give yourself daily goals to get that room cleaned up. Maybe read that book that has been on your nightstand for 3 months or even start that hobby you’ve been wanting to try. If you keep your mind stimulated you’ll be on track to beating the winter blues.

  7. Add some sun to your day. Although we can’t control the weather if possible, try and get some sun when it is showing. Even a 15-minute walk can boost your vitamin levels. There are sun lamps that people can purchase if they want an extra boost

  8. Lastly, if you feel the winter blues are more severe and start to cause severe distress or disruption in your life it may be time to talk to your healthcare provider.

The causes of SAD are mainly due to the changes in our internal clocks and a fluctuation in hormones that affect our circadian rhythm. We often feel more fatigue due to the lack of appropriate sunlight and our body believing it is nighttime more often. Most individuals have a decrease in serotonin levels, which plays a huge role in mood regulation, and can contribute to a decrease in emotional well-being. Being darker for longer periods of time can also affect melatonin levels which is our sleep hormone, if we have an influx of melatonin at the wrong parts of the day that’s when we become groggy and it becomes difficult to concentrate. Lacking sufficient amounts of vitamin D can also contribute to feelings of depression which is why taking a vitamin d supplement can boost serotonin productivity.

If you are struggling with SAD all of the above ways can help promote a healthier lifestyle although they may not be enough. What else can you do to treat SAD if you’ve been properly diagnosed?

Add light therapy to your daily practice. It is a holistic and self-administered way to boost vitamin D and regulate our circadian rhythm. Utilizing light therapy when you wake up can increase your body's awareness of starting the day off right.

Similarly using a dawn simulator can promote a healthy wake-up and get that circadian rhythm back in check. They can be utilized as an alarm clock and will gradually stimulate natural light for 30-60 minutes prior to your wake-up time to regulate the body's melatonin levels.

It is also an option to seek out medication in conjunction with talk therapy to improve SAD symptoms. Working with mental health providers can introduce additional ways to combat and safely treat more severe symptoms like suicidal ideations. Never hesitate to reach out to your provider to help differentiate and diagnose as it is possible that people who believe they’re struggling with winter blues may need more intensive treatment.

If you are currently struggling with any of these symptoms, especially suicidal thoughts, it is important to reach out for care as your safety is very important.

If you are in a life threatening situation, call or text 988 for the Nationwide Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If your issue is an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

We are here to help, too! Our trained clinicians are experienced in treating symptoms of depression and seasonal affective disorder. Contact us today to set up an appointment.

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