As summer turns to fall and the leaves boast their beautiful colors, many of us sigh in relief for a break from the summer heat. But for some of us, fall ushers in a dark sense of foreboding and dread. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition that lives up to its name and affects 6.8% of the U.S. population. It is a temporary (seasonal) depression that usually affects people in the fall and winter months, as the days get colder and darker. Some people do experience SAD in the spring and summertime as well, which comes with a different manifestation of symptoms. Others who struggle with Major Depression may see an increase in their symptoms with the change of seasons. Traditional SAD is characterized by all the typical symptoms of depression, but they usually go away once the spring and summer approach.
Warning Signs for SAD
You may be developing SAD if you notice your mood worsening as the days get cloudier, colder, and darker (or the opposite if you have spring/summer SAD). Other signs of SAD are the typical symptoms of depression: low energy, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, changes in sleeping and eating habits, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, and sometimes even thoughts of death or suicide. Spring and summer SAD symptoms can look like trouble sleeping, poor appetite, weight loss, and agitation or anxiety.
Why does it Happen?
The causes of fall/winter SAD are largely unknown, but there are some biological factors at play.
Circadian rhythm. As the days get darker and the time is adjusted in the Fall, your circadian rhythm is interrupted, which can lead to oversleeping, lower energy, and depressed feelings. If this change is not noticed and attended to, the person doesn’t adjust to the changes that come with the weather and symptoms may persist.
Serotonin. Additionally, the lack of sunlight, low mood, decreased level of activities, and feeling bad about yourself can decrease serotonin levels, a chemical in your brain that promotes feelings of happiness.
Melatonin, a brain chemical that also affects mood and sleep, is also disrupted by the changing seasons and it causes the person to oversleep as the brain is understanding the days are shorter and nights are longer.
Things that May Worsen SAD
In an attempt to “reduce” SAD many may be coping with alcohol or drugs. This can worsen the symptoms of depression and even cause anxiety. Here are six ways alcohol worsens symptoms of depression (You can read full article here):
1. Alcoholism can eventually lead to isolation.
2. Poor economic outcomes.
3. Can trigger health crises that can lead to or worsen depression.
4. Alcohol can cause brain or metabolic changes that can lead to depression.
5. Alcohol is a depressant. While it can make you feel “happier” initially, it eventually worsens the depression.
6. Alcohol impairs judgement and increases impulsivity. This can lead to poor behavior and negative consequences that lead to or worsen feelings of depression.
What should I do if I have SAD?
If you suspect you are experiencing SAD, you are not alone. You may feel like isolating yourself, but it’s important to reach out to others for support, including a mental health counselor. Especially as Covid continues to keep us more separated from our social networks, it is critical to stay connected, whether virtually or safely in person. It’s also important to get outside as much as possible, especially when it’s sunny. Building up an exercise routine may also help you increase your positive mood. You can also purchase a UV lamp that simulates the UV rays in sunlight. If your support network, exercising, therapy, and UV light therapy are not enough, medication is also an option. Whatever you decide to do, you don’t have to suffer alone.
As Thanksgiving approaches, another way we can manage our negative mood changes is by focusing our minds and hearts on what we are thankful for. As we begin to notice all the things we have to be grateful for, we more naturally shift to a positive mindset. Here are a couple of ways we can get into the habit of gratitude:
Journaling is a great idea in general when you are experiencing negative emotions, but keeping a “gratitude journal” is one way you can keep track of everything you are thankful for. It’s also great to have something to look back on when times are tough. Whether you keep it simple with a running list of things throughout your day that make you smile, or write in detail each experience that brings you joy, writing down the good can immediately boost your happiness and give you evidence that life isn’t all that bad. Another idea is writing down the word GRATITUDE and thinking of something you are grateful for that corresponds with each letter (i.e. G = Grandma, R = Rain, A = art, etc.). For those who like to do arts and crafts, your journal can also be a creative space! Have fun with it.
Do Things That Bring You Joy and Rest
It’s easy to get stuck in ungratefulness when we are weary and burnt out. Taking time each day to refill our tanks by doing something we love to do can immediately put us into a grateful state of mind. Go on a run, call a friend, bake a cake, or maybe just take a nap. Whatever you need to do to recharge and refuel, do it. You will feel so much better afterwards and be able to then pour out from a full and thankful cup.
Sometimes we need to get out of our own perspective and daily life to appreciate all we
have. A great way to do this is to find a way to help someone in need or volunteer with your local church or volunteer organization. This isn’t to compare and make ourselves feel better, but rather to help us realize that gratitude isn’t dependent on our circumstances. You may just find that people with much less than you are content and grateful for the smallest things, which can then help you to also learn and notice all the abundance in your own life.
There are so many ways to create the habit of gratitude, but it can be as simple as just taking a moment to appreciate the beautiful flowers in your neighbor’s yard on your morning walk. The point is to realign your thoughts from focusing on everything that’s going wrong in your life to everything that’s going right. However, sometimes even our best efforts at training our minds to see the good aren’t enough to relieve our negative mood symptoms, especially when there are chemical imbalances in our brain. If practicing gratitude isn’t working, please do seek the help of a professional to explore the root issues that may be causing your SAD.