If you have negative thoughts or suicidal feelings, resources are available to help. In the US, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; in the UK, call the Samaritans at 116 123; and in Australia, call Lifeline at 13 11 14. Additionally, you can find help at these 13 suicide and crisis intervention hotlines.
Seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression, is more common in wintertime, when many of us have less access to sunlight (but it can happen anytime during the year). Seasonal depression is more than just the “winter blues,” though. According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD symptoms can include a lack of energy, listlessness, poor focus, diminished interest and motivation, oversleeping, weight gain and even suicidal ideation. Researchers at Boston University report that seasonal affective disorder affects 10 million Americans, and women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men.
If you or a loved one is experiencing SAD, know that you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
SAD is a form of depression that tends to affect people during the winter months, according to Malin McKinley, a psychotherapist based in Agoura Hills, California.
“Although the causes of SAD are unknown, the disorder has been linked to biochemical imbalances in the brain due to a decrease in both daylight and sunlight during the winter months.”
Read more: How to Deal with the End of Daylight Saving Time
“Symptoms are most common November to April and can vary from mild to severe,” McKinley said. Although anyone can experience SAD, seasonal depression in the US tends to affect people more in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska the Northeast and other regions that experience colder winters. It’s also more common among people with a history of depression.
Some people with SAD can experience the reverse in spring and early summer — a manic phase when the days are longer.
What are the symptoms of seasonal depression?
- Negative thoughts.
- Hypersomnia (sleeping too much).
- Increased intake of carbohydrates/weight gain.
- Social withdrawal/hibernating.
How do you treat seasonal affective disorder?
If you have a history of depression or bipolar disorder, a healthy and active lifestyle is essential to minimizing the impact of SAD. Exercise, in particular, can ease symptoms of depression.
“Changing certain behaviors that exacerbate depression or SAD will reduce the chances of developing SAD [or] depression,” New York therapist Amy Cirbus said. “For example, staying active despite lacking the motivation, exercising and eating healthy — even when you are not hungry. It is also important to reach out for support.”
McKinley added that lifestyle changes — including 30 minutes of exercise a day, going outside to obtain sunlight, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy and avoiding drugs and alcohol — can also help.
“Decreasing screen time, meditating and connecting with loved ones are [also] great ways to increase emotional well-being and decrease symptoms,” he added.
Read more: Try Light Therapy to Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder
There are also some basic steps you can take to address seasonal depression.
1. Follow a routine
“With SAD there is the tendency to want to stay home and isolate as the lack of sunlight might make a person less motivated to get out. This can cause other strong feelings, which only add to the reason for not wanting to get out, leaving a person stuck in a vicious cycle. So creating a routine that ensures a person has activities during the day, support and self-care are all very important,” Cirbus said.
2. Find your triggers
When you experience depression, you often have common triggers that can send you into a negative place or an emotional low. Find what those are, like scrolling social media or watching the news, and limit those as much as possible. “Finding out what your triggers are and being able to have a plan so you know what to do when you’re triggered [is helpful],” Johnson said.
3. Try light therapy
Getting outside for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day is ideal. But, if you don’t have a lot of sun where you live or your schedule keeps you indoors a lot, a light therapy device is a relatively inexpensive solution. “Sitting 20 to 90 minutes in front of a lightbox specially designed for light therapy has shown to be effective within weeks. The light stimulates pathways in the brain that controls sleep and helps regulate mood,” McKinley said.
Read on: How Light Therapy Can Help Fight Jet Lag, Insomnia and Depression
Increasing light exposure, even from an artificial source, can help some people alleviate or prevent symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic. Light exposure affects the body’s ability to produce certain hormones and helps regulate the circadian rhythm — both of which are important for overall health, sleep and mood regulation.
4. Maintain your mental and physical health
Making an effort to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, stay hydrated and eat healthy, balanced meals will all support your overall health and mental health. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family when you feel down. Emotional support, connection and a sense of community are important for helping you feel your best.
If you think your ability to get through the day, focus on work and maintain relationships is being impacted by SAD, see a licensed health care provider. Talk therapy can also help.
5. Be sure to get enough vitamin D
Vitamin D helps regulate the release of neurotransmitters (like serotonin, commonly known as a happy hormone), which can help manage your mood. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety and cognitive decline. You can get enough vitamin D by getting 10 to 30 minutes of daily sun exposure, through a supplement or eating vitamin D rich foods like salmon, eggs or mushrooms.
6. Seek professional help
SAD is a type of depression, so it needs to be diagnosed by a mental health care provider. Talking to a professional who specializes in mental health disorders can help you tailor a treatment plan that works best for your symptoms and lifestyle. If a mental health professional isn’t available near you, there a plenty of therapy apps that match you with a therapist based on your answers to a questionnaire.
Even though talking to a professional is highly encouraged and the best way to treat depression, there are alternative ways to boost your mental health without therapy like journaling, meditation, breathing exercises and exercising.