Winter is Coming: What You Should Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder

Nov 18, 2020

By Joe Grasso, PhD

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has many names: seasonal depression, SAD, and depression in the context of seasonal patterns, to name a few. It’s a common phenomenon–and while SAD itself is a subtype of mood disorders, many people experience some symptoms of SAD even if they don’t meet the clinical criteria for a diagnosis. 

The circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic pose additional challenges for people who will experience seasonal depression this winter since many of the activities that prevent or combat it involve socializing, which is risky for physical health in the current climate. Furthermore, the pandemic has already triggered depressive symptoms in many people, which means more people are likely to experience SAD this winter than in a typical year.

The good news? There are effective steps you can take to help prevent or lessen the symptoms of SAD, even during a pandemic.

What is SAD, and what causes it?

There are seasonal patterns to depressive episodes, meaning that your moods can fluctuate at different points in the calendar year. These fluctuations can be influenced by less light exposure, since light exposure can help regulate sleep patterns, make exercise routines easier, and facilitate more social interaction. In the winter, when it gets dark earlier and cold weather dominates, lifestyle habits can be disrupted: You may be less social, less physically active, and more tired, all of which can impact your mood. Add to that a global pandemic that’s even more disruptive to our usual routines, and you have the potential for a higher risk of mood issues this winter.

Here are fall and wintertime symptoms of SAD to watch for:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Tiredness or low energy 
  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially craving foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Feelings worthlessness, hopelessness, or guilt
  • Frequent thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide

Who gets SAD, and how can you cope?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), SAD can affect up to 10 percent of people, and occurs more frequently in women. Additionally, 10-20 percent of recurrent depressive episodes follow a seasonal pattern. People who are more likely to focus on their depressed mood and ruminate on life’s challenges or negative events may be more susceptible to SAD. 

Since seasonal depression symptoms can occur as a result of breaking self-care routines, it’s important to stay committed to a self-care practice. The following steps can help you stay on track.

Get enough light exposure

Prioritizing your schedule so you can maximize your exposure to sunlight is key in combating winter depression. Light therapy, which includes regular exposure to a manufactured bright light in the winter months when daylight hours are shortened, can help regulate sleep patterns that are disrupted during seasonal changes. While you should discuss light therapy and other supplemental care with a health care provider, general exposure to daylight for 20 minutes per day–ideally in the morning–is a simple, accessible, and free way to lessen symptoms of SAD.

Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Also known as CBT, this type of talk therapy is an effective form of psychological treatment that involves actively changing and challenging unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. CBT focuses on helping people engage in adaptive behaviors and routines that counter depression–including seasonal forms. Research shows that starting or continuing CBT with a mental health professional can greatly benefit your mood throughout seasonal changes.

Maintain a daily routine

To stay motivated, it can be helpful to track your mood in relation to everyday activities. For example, if you’re finding it difficult to rally energy to go for a walk in the mornings, it might be useful to note how you feel before and after the walk. If you notice that your mood and energy levels are elevated afterwards, it’s a worthwhile routine to keep up–but if not, your morning time may be better spent reading the news on the porch, or savoring a cup of your favorite coffee or tea.

Either way, understanding the impact of these activities on your mood can help motivate you to maintain them or find new ones during the seasonal change. Disengaging from regular activities, which can be a byproduct of winter weather and the holidays, may trigger symptoms of SAD, but you can counter this by keeping up with your regular self-care practices.

Stay connected

Staying connected with others is another action you can take to help cope with SAD, even if that may look a little different during the pandemic. For example, if you and your best friend have a yearly tradition of having breakfast together on Christmas morning, but social distancing regulations means you can’t meet in person, can you video chat during the meal instead? Or if you can’t see your family this holiday season like you usually would, can you plan a mailed gift exchange and open your presents together over Zoom?

Try finding ways to connect with your values despite the restrictions of COVID-19–it’s much more possible than you may think. Social support is a strong predictor of reduced depression risk, but life in a pandemic means you have to be more proactive about staying connected. Though it can be difficult at first, it is possible to stay socially engaged despite physical distancing, and those distanced interactions can be just as meaningful as they are in person.

Symptoms of SAD can be sudden and surprising. It’s important to remember, though, that they are common, especially in the winter, and that effective treatments and practices are available. Whether you’re looking for ways to alleviate the stress that may accompany the colder months or you’re experiencing more severe symptoms of SAD, a mental health care provider can offer the support you need.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Clinical Director of Partnerships at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. Dr. Grasso consults with employers on mental health initiatives in the workplace and leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content. He also specializes in developing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based behavioral health care programs.