This article is written from the standpoint of someone who struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) along with other mental disorders. I am not a mental health professional; nor do I claim to be. I am knowledgeable in this subject based solely from my many years of experience. If you find that this article is helpful, share it with friends because you never know who may be struggling. If you find that my words are triggering, take a deep breath and move on with your day because you deserve to have a good day. Please don’t let my thoughts and opinions ruin that for you.
For those of you that don’t know, SAD is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. Oftentimes referred to as the “winter blues” or "seasonal depression" because for most people it begins around this time of year (fall) and typically ends in the spring.
SAD affects about 10 millions Americans, women more so than men. The cause of this disorder remains unknown although lack of sun exposure and low Vitamin D seems to be the major common factor. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person, and it can also vary from year to year or month to month.
Symptoms include feeling depressed throughout the day almost every day, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, having low energy, having problems with sleeping, oversleeping, experiencing changes in your appetite or weight, carbohydrate cravings, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, increased symptoms of other mental illnesses such as anxiety or OCD, and in severe cases having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
As the leaves begin to fall, and the hours of sunlight begin to shrink, you can find SAD making it's way back into your life. Why is this? When it’s dark, your brain produces melatonin which helps you sleep. The sunlight during the day triggers the brain to stop melatonin production so you feel awake and alert. As you know, fall and winter have shortened days meaning less sunlight and long nights. Your body may be producing too much melatonin, leaving you feeling drowsy and low on energy. The reduced sunlight can also lower your body’s production of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. There are ways to aid your body in increasing the production of serotonin which are discussed later in this article.
So why talk about this topic? Taking into account the year we have all experienced, seasonal depression could affect us more so than in the past.
Combine any depression felt during this year’s lockdown with seasonal depression and we could be looking at more severe cases. As we enter into the holiday season, many of us will be separated from our families for the first time due to COVID restrictions. Need I say more? This is a recipe for disaster when it comes to triggering depression.
Not sure how to overcome your symptoms of seasonal depression? Well, first answer this question: Does this sound like something you may be suffering with? If so, it’s time to make a plan- and I mean NOW. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to fix this illness so please consult with your doctor if you are struggling with depression of any kind. What I do have to offer you is my own approaches in managing this illness. I hope that my personal methods may help you or a loved one get through these next few months. If you, yourself do not struggle with SAD, but know someone who shows signs of SAD and/or depression, keep reading to find out what you can do to help.
As the hours of the day shrink, so will your energy which means you need to figure out how you will get through these months. I know I know, it sounds like I am preparing you for war. But if you can think back to previous years, on your lowest days, it’s not a fun place. Over the years, I've become more acutely aware of how SAD has effected me so I began diving into research to better understand what SAD is, and methods to control it. Below are a few of those methods that have worked for many people; including myself.
1. EXERCISE- This is a vital piece to your approach when attempting to get a grip on your depression. I totally understand that a cold, dark winter day makes it extremely difficult to move, let alone get to the gym.
Remember, feeling unmotivated is part of this illness, but the good news is exercise is part of a NATURAL way to treat and prevent depression!
When you are active, your body produces the feel good chemicals in your brain that may be severely lacking during these months. I am not just selling you on this because I work at a gym.
There is scientific evidence that shows daily exercise can increase energy levels, decrease anxiety, improve sleep and increase self-esteem; something we often severely lack when dealing with depression.
It is also helpful to exercise with a friend. Bundle up and go for a walk during lunchtime or plan to take classes at the gym together. Exercising with friends will help keep you motivated during this tough time, while social interaction also aids in fighting the symptoms of depression. An added bonus: going outside for a walk (even 10 minutes is great) and being in the sunlight, even on cloudy days, can help improve Vitamin D levels. I understand it’s not ideal on most winter days, but get outside when you can because it truly will make a difference (especially when the sun is shining).
2. DIET- Fight SAD with your fork. What you are eating could impact your depression. Studies have suggested omega-3 fatty acids could influence your mood. Food sources that contain the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds, walnuts, and salmon. Besides being high in omega-3s, salmon is a great source of lean proteins. While a juicy rib-eye steak is absolutely delicious, the high saturated fat content may not be good for your mood.
Lean proteins, however, carry plenty of amino acids, which may positively affect your mood. Lean proteins added to a balanced meal also create a great source of energy, which is something you’ll need to help beat fatigue. Also adding Vitamin D rich foods is benficial because your body is naturally producing less Vitamin D due to lack of sunlight. Pictured is a great list of Vitamin D rich foods that you should be adding to your diet this winter.
Stress aggravates depression symptoms and exhausts your body. You're exhausted enough without your food choices making this worse. Try to avoid sugary calorie dense foods and alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning these beverages will likely contribute to making your winter blues even worse. From a real life perspective, I understand that a drink every once in a while can help relieve anxiety and calm us after a long day. But when we turn to alcohol to relieve all our stress, it can only make things worse. About one third of people with depression also have a problem with alcohol. So does depression cause alcohol abuse or does alcohol abuse cause depression? For many, it's both. So be mindful of your alcohol intake especially if you're prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder and/or alcohol abuse. As for sugary foods, I know I often crave sweets when I am stressed and it is not unusual if you feel these cravings too. This is especially true during the winter. There is more complexity to these cravings than just saying you're addicted to sugar.
Our emotions, memories and dietary needs are all connected to create these desires.
And although it tastes great at the time, we all know there are consequences to long term diets that include overindulging. Besides weight gain, this type of eating can make depression worse, especially if you're the type of person that experiences guilt after indulging. While I understand there are times when you just need chocolate (trust me, I know that feeling), it's important to recognize what is driving you to reach for the cake, so you can care for your body and mind. Practicing mindful eating can be extremely beneficial to help become more aware of your reasoning behind your sweet tooth.
Next time you get a craving for your comfort food, stop and ask yourself how you are feeling at that moment. Are you sad, lonely, anxious? Identify this feeling, then think about the route you usually take (eating your comfort food followed by feelings of guilt or shame).
Instead replace this snacking with an activity you enjoy such as going for a walk, taking a nice warm bath, or watching your favorite movie. Sometimes you may find you were actually eating out of boredom. But if you are actually hungry, have healthy snacks available to swap out for those sweet treats. During the winter months, I often find myself swapping out tea for my calorie dense treat, and grabbing a book to read or watching the Hallmark Channel movies. Yes, I am one of those hopeless romantic, cheesy movie lovers because it puts me in a good mood. Find what works for you, and create those peaceful times for yourself. You deserve it.
3. STRESS- Managing stress is so important during this time. Personally, I find my stress worsens in the winter months because I have no relief from my daily schedule. Coffee, work, shower, dinner, laundry, dishes, bedtime; and repeat. No beach vacations to look forward to. No days by the pool or bbq with friends on a Friday night. It becomes this “just get through the next day” mindset which makes me completely miserable.
I am sure some of you are skiers or snowboarders and look forward to those vacations, but with the pandemic still going on, have you thought about what you’ll do if these vacations are not a possibility this year? After experiencing 2020 the way we have, how will we ever get through winter with this miserable feeling? Many have found relief in meditation or yoga, but I personally find relief in planning small “events” to look forward to.
My events are something I can create for myself to spend the week looking forward to such as a movie night complete with homemade hot chocolate, a game night, sledding after a snowstorm, a bonfire with family or friends, starting a new book or tv series, or just simply spending a day in pjs. Although these may not seem very fun or exciting, just picking one “event” to put on the calendar and work toward each week keeps my spirits up. Plus this time gives me a chance to destress from all the hectic feelings during the week.
4. REACH OUT- Your friends and family may not experience the same feelings you do during this time, but it doesn’t mean they are not understanding of what you go through. Trust me when I say, talking about it is the best thing you can do. I know that is easier said than done.
But find one person you trust, and talk with them when you are ready. I find it is easiest to explain myself when I have my better days so the people around me can recognize my off days. Send them this article, or send them a small note to let them know you struggle with SAD so they can learn about this illness and find ways to help you through your toughest days. As my family says, they will never understand what I go through, but they will find every way they can to make it easier on me. Personally, I have learned just saying “I am having an off day but I don’t know why” is enough. You don’t have to explain in detail or give a reason why- just making the people that love you aware of your mindset for the day will make it easier on everyone including you.
For those that are not struggling with SAD but know someone that is or might be, it is important to be educated about this mental health disorder because it is not always obvious. It is important to help fight the stigma by not judging those who are suffering. For some who struggle with this disorder, the bad days will sometimes be masked leaving partners and those around us unaware of the internal struggle.
You may believe you have done something wrong, which can result in arguments and leaving the struggling individual in an even worse position. The best thing you can do is educate yourself and BE PATIENT. We are fighting an internal battle that most of us don’t understand. So learning how to recognize the signs and reacting appropriately is the best approach to help fight this battle. The signs and symptoms of SAD can be hidden, and in some cases, symptoms may become worse or severe over time if left untreated.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some signs to look out for are social withdrawal, school or work problems, substance abuse, other mental health disorders such as increased anxiety or eating disorder relapse, and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
If you or someone you love is experiencing signs of depression, there are many resources available to help.
None of us are alone in this fight. Keep fighting.
ACE Certified Health Coach
“Alcohol Use, Abuse, and Depression: Is There a Connection?” WebMD, WebMD, 12 Nov. 2018, www.webmd.com/depression/guide/alcohol-and-depresssion.
“Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Oct. 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651.
“Winter Blues? Try These 10 Food Tips to Help Ease Symptoms.” Healthline, 19 Sept. 2017, www.healthline.com/health/food-tips-help-ease-winter-blues#takeaway.