Each year, around 10 million Americans struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder. And if you’re feeling down this winter, have low energy levels, and just can’t shake the depression, you might be dealing with it too.
Thankfully, there are methods to help relieve your symptoms. One strategy might be leaving your holiday decorations up for longer. But there are several other proven methods, too. Keep reading for how to tell if you’re experiencing SAD and five tips to help you feel better this season.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Johns Hopkins Medicine defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a type of depression that typically occurs during the winter months when natural sunlight is limited. “It does appear that it can be much more prevalent in women, younger people, and for those with previously diagnosed mental conditions,” notes Laurie Singer, MS, LMFT, BCBA, a licensed psychotherapist, board-certified behavior analyst and family/child therapist in Camarillo, CA.
SAD is believed to be caused by shorter days and less sunlight. Essentially, this can lead to a disruption in our body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, and may trigger a chemical change in the brain, leading to depression symptoms.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can vary from person to person, but they often share common signs and experiences. Singer adds that these symptoms can range from mild to even debilitating for some. Here are the symptoms of SAD as noted by Johns Hopkins Medicine:
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms:
- Increased sleepiness
- Loss of interest in once enjoyed activities
- Social withdrawal
- Irritability and anxiety
- Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
- Fatigue and low energy levels
- Decreased sex drive
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Increased appetite (especially for sweets and carbohydrates)
- Weight gain
Normal Winter Blues vs SAD
While many people feel a bit down during the colder months, SAD is more than a case of the typical winter blues. The symptoms of SAD are more severe and can significantly interfere with your daily life. However, it can be a bit difficult to distinguish between the winter blues from SAD. Especially since symptoms can range in severity and length of time.
“Certainly if someone deals with the feelings associated with SAD on a regular, seasonal basis, it’s a safe bet that they could be diagnosed,” says Singer. However, even if someone isn’t experiencing SAD but has the winter blues with desperation and sadness mixed in, they’re also a good candidate to seek professional help.
SAD can also look like someone feeling down for extended periods of time–not knowing why they are sad and simply just cannot shake the feeling. These are all signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder. “The most important thing to remember is that SAD is almost always temporary and there are steps we can take to help alleviate some of the symptoms,” says Singer.
How to Relieve Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder During the Holidays
The holiday season can be a particularly challenging time for those dealing with SAD and the winter blues. Thankfully, there are several ways to help alleviate symptoms and improve your mood.
1. Leave your holiday decorations up longer
Who says you have to take your tree down the day after Christmas? Having a fun and decorated living space can have a huge impact on your mood. Instead of rushing to take down your holiday decorations immediately after the festivities, consider leaving them up a bit longer if they make you happy. The twinkle of colorful lights, family holiday cards, and the cheer of festive ornaments all around can create a warm and cozy atmosphere that boosts your spirits.
2. Get outside
This may be easier said than done (especially if you live in an area where temperatures drop below freezing) but try to step outside at least once a day. Bundle up and get as much sun as you can. “This has a direct impact on our serotonin levels and can make a huge difference,” says Singer. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic share the same recommendation and note that more sunlight can help improve SAD symptoms. They also recommend increasing the amount of sunlight in your home or office by opening blinds and curtains.
3. Get a sunrise alarm clock
One method that most people don’t know about is morning light therapy. Particularly using artificial light to gradually wake you up instead of a blaring alarm clock in the dark to jolt you awake. With these unique clocks, you’ll start by setting the time you want to wake up. Then about 20 to 30 minutes before your alarm goes off, the clock will begin to light up gradually–simulating a natural sunrise in your room. “This tells our body that we’re approaching the time to wake, and cortisol is released. So when the alarm goes off our bodies are better prepared and waking isn’t such a shock to the system,” says Singer. In fact, experts at UW Medicine also note that gradual wakeups can be better for cardiac function. Meaning less stress on the heart, blood pressure, and nervous system when waking up.
4. Positive self-talk
Another simple yet very effective method of coping with SAD is through positive self-talk. Singer says that means reassuring yourself that this is only a temporary condition. “Just knowing there’s a finish line can boost a person’s morale,” she goes on. Try setting a reminder on your phone to go off each day around 8 pm or so and verbally say something like “I will get through this. This is only temporary. I will be okay.”
5. Don’t forget self-care
Sometimes, when we feel down, we stop practicing basic self-care habits. While it might be easier to skip your skincare routine each night, it might actually feed into the depression even more. Remember to eat well, get some movement in, and keep up with your hygiene. It can all make a huge difference. Singer also mentions another critical factor. “While I do think being around loved ones during the holidays can have a beneficial impact, sometimes we need to consider ourselves first,” she says. That means not over-extending ourselves and saying no when you just don’t feel like it. “Remember that we can’t be ‘good’ for others unless we’re ‘good’ to ourselves,” Singer notes.
When to See a Doctor
It’s important to know that people with preexisting mental health conditions are more susceptible to getting symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. In that instance, getting ahead of the symptoms before they fully set in is always best. Plus, you should also seek out a professional who is well-versed in SAD. They will be the most beneficial for you, and they will know different methods and techniques to try. “When looking for a therapist, I suggest seeking out those with experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” says Singer. This type of psychotherapy has been shown to deliver long-lasting results and can be as effective as, or even more effective, than other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.
And always remember, you are never alone in your struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder or the winter blues. Try taking proactive steps to manage your symptoms, such as leaving your decorations up longer, getting outside, and trying positive self-talk. And when you need it, there’s always the option of talking to a professional, too.