Polar Vortex Got You Down? It May Actually Be Seasonal Affective Disorder
The term “winter blues” has become part of our cultural lexicon; we often brush off feeling a little more tired or a little less motivated as something that just happens when the sun has set by the time we leave work at the end of the day. But for some, recurring bouts of serious depression take hold during the winter months and create true burdens for functioning in daily life. Seasonal Affective Disorder is real—and for those diagnosed with it, the months between December and February can prove especially difficult. Learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and what you can do to help yourself—and those you love—feel better until the days get longer.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
It’s an acronym befitting how it makes those who suffer from it feel: SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder—a seasonal form of depression most common during the winter months—affects about 10 million Americans. “SAD is reported to be four times more common in women, with an onset of symptoms beginning between the ages of 18 to 30,” says psychotherapist Jenny D. Brice, MFT, MPH.
What’s behind the the mood shift when the days are shortest? According to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “People with seasonal affective disorder have difficulty regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to be responsible for balancing mood.” In addition, the study found, those diagnosed with SAD may suffer from an overproduction of melatonin, the hormone responsible for triggering sleepiness when it’s dark outside. With longer nights, the pineal gland increases melatonin production, leaving those with SAD feeling sluggish and drowsy.
“SAD is not a unique diagnosis,” explains Samatha Elkrief, LMSW, “but a specifier for other mood disorders, like depression.” She notes that SAD should be diagnosed by a clinician using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), when a patient meets certain criteria.
To diagnose patients with SAD, clinicians look for the onset of mood symptoms during a particular time of year that are not correlated to other stressors (trauma, bereavement, seasonal unemployment); whether the symptoms go into full remission at a regular time of year (i.e., the spring season); if over the last two years, at least two major depressive episodes have occurred that demonstrate a seasonal pattern; and over the course of a lifetime, if the number of seasonal depressive episodes outnumbers nonseasonal depressive episodes.
Knowing the Symptoms of SAD
While there is no one symptom of SAD, there are some common collective symptoms that serve as red flags that Seasonal Affective Disorder is setting in.
“I think an underrated red flag is intense denial of symptoms,” says Jenny. “Notice if you’re overcompensating in some way or pushing yourself to do things that normally would take little to no effort. Others include poor sleep or change in sleep patterns and eating habits, apathy and moodiness.”
Samantha agrees. She cites low mood, excessive sleepiness and fatigue, increased appetite, overeating and weight gain, a preference for carbohydrates, extreme loss of energy and social isolation as symptoms worthy of attention.
Note, too, if you’re feeling hopeless, have a feeling of heaviness in your arms or legs, have difficulty concentrating or are increasingly more irritable, says Psychology Today. According to the publication, SAD can sometimes be misdiagnosed, disguising itself as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia or mononucleosis.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms to the point where your day-to-day routine is interrupted, it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor. “SAD is only diagnosed if it is interfering with a person’s daily functioning, including work and/or relationships and is causing distress,” Samantha explains. Being as candid as possible with your doctor about how you’re feeling and the extent to which your routine is affected will help determine what the best course of action is to helping you get back on track.
As always, if you are experiencing feelings of depression, contact a mental health professional.
If you are experiencing thoughts related to self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Tips for Combatting SAD
So, what can someone who suffers from SAD do to help get them through the winter months? Says Samantha, utilizing these tips can help boost your mood and make the shorter days much more bearable.
1. Let the Sunshine In.
“Try to get some sunshine, whether that means bundling up and going for a walk or taking a much needed vacation!” Samantha suggests.
2. Leave the Light On.
“Light therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for SAD,” Samantha explains. “A light box should provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and emit as little UV light as possible. It is generally recommended to use the light box first thing in the morning.”
3. Get Moving.
“It’s easy to spend the extra time in bed or curled up under the covers when it’s cold out,” Samantha admits, “but physical exercise has been shown to affect mood in SAD patients.”
4. Find a Therapist.
“There are so many kinds of therapy and therapists to choose from,” Samantha says. “It may take some trial and error, but you will find a good match. Therapy, and specifically CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) has been shown to be an effective treatment for SAD.”
5. Feed Your Brain.
Lastly, Samantha encourages a healthy diet to help combat the symptoms of SAD. “While there is not much research specifically on SAD and diet, SAD can have many different roots, and diet can play a significant role in the prevention and recovery from depression. We always recommend eating a diet rich in brain food,” she says.
Winter is guaranteed to arrive annually, bringing with it shorter days and long nights. Knowing that, is there any way to prevent SAD?
“If there is an underlying mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder, it is important to treat that mood disorder,” Samantha explains. “Medication can be helpful for many people, as is psychotherapy, diet and lifestyle changes. If you know your seasonal pattern, exercise, light box therapy and making sure you are in treatment before your symptoms typically appear can also be helpful.”
Still, Samantha encourages an attitude of self-love to accompany pro-activity. “While doing all these things is helpful, it’s also so important to be kind to yourself,” she reminds us. “Struggling with depression is painful and it’s easy to get stuck in negative feedback loops, especially when in a depressive episode. Know that you are doing your best and you will come out the other end of this.”
Samantha continues, “Even though it’s easier to isolate, try to spend time with people you love. Tell people what’s going on. Stigma and shame around depression only keep folks more isolated. As Brene Brown shares, ‘Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgement.’ It takes courage to show up as our authentic selves, but when we do so, we break down the walls that keep us in the dark.”
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