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Seasonal Affective Disorder: How Winter Really Can Cause The Blues

Do you feel “down” as soon as the days start getting shorter? If so, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Many people have an emotional response to the change of seasons, and Seasonal Affective Disorder can cause quite the disruption to everyday life.

But just because you loathe winter doesn’t mean you have this disorder – it’s important to learn the difference so you can better understand your mood, your overall wellbeing, and what you can do about it. Take a look at some of the warning signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder, as well as some useful coping techniques.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It’s natural to have preferences when it comes to the seasons – some find a heavy snowfall magical, while others are counting down the days till summer is back. Having a slight emotional response to seasonal change is healthy. After all, it shows that you have likes, dislikes, and activities or settings that you look forward to.

As seasons change, however, your mood and mental wellbeing shouldn’t respond in a way that disrupts daily activities for an extended period of time. When major depressive episodes happen with the onset of the colder, darker season, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder. The acronym – SAD – has become somewhat of a joke in media coverage of this disorder, as it generally describes the mood that overwhelms people.

But the effects of SAD are no laughing matter. Clinically recognized as a type of depression, SAD can cause grogginess, fatigue, lack of motivation, and disinterest in social activities, all of which can have negative impacts on mental and physical health. For most people with SAD, these symptoms begin every year as winter approaches.

The Science behind SAD

Scientists are still pinpointing the details surrounding SAD, but they already have several observations that shine light on this dark disorder. Some research shows that people with SAD have reduced serotonin levels, responsible for mood. Vitamin D promotes serotonin activity, and the body produces vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Shorter days mean less sun exposure, and thus decreased levels of vitamin D. This supports the theory that the body’s response to sunlight and regulating serotonin may be off in people with SAD.

Other research shows that SAD patients have too much melatonin, a hormone essential to regulating sleep patterns. Having too much melatonin can tell the body it’s time to sleep, which can increase overall fatigue – even during daytime hours.

In any case, there is clearly a disruption between serotonin and melatonin in those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which naturally leads to the common symptoms of fatigue, reduced energy, depression, and overall lack of motivation.

Treatment Options for SAD

There are two main treatment options for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common “talk therapy” approach that can prove beneficial. Therapy sessions (either private or in a group) focus on coping techniques, including the replacement of ‘dark’ emotions with more positive, uplifting thoughts. Scheduling pleasant, indoor activities to keep active during winter is another central aspect of CBT tailored for SAD patients.

Light therapy, also called phototherapy, is another promising treatment that has shown similarly positive results. The premise of light therapy is to trigger serotonin production that would otherwise be activated by exposure to sunlight – something that’s sparse during dark winter days.

When to Seek Professional Help

It’s always a great idea to seek professional guidance if you’re experiencing any symptoms related to depression. Even in mild cases, a therapist can offer helpful coping techniques and possible solutions. Because Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression, learning to manage symptoms is essential to maintaining motivation, staying active, and staying healthy.

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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