With the holidays behind us and a new year ahead, this is “the most wonderful time of the year” for some, but not everyone can echo the sentiment. Maybe you’re more of the “winter blues” type. If so, you’re not alone. The changing temperatures leave thousands of people with seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This disorder is believed to be caused by a hormonal imbalance triggered by the shorter days of winter. SAD most commonly occurs in the late fall and early winter months, but it can occur in the warmer months as well. As a disorder that typically manifests itself annually, SAD symptoms usually begin and end around the same time every year, taking a toll on thoughts, mood and behavior.
SAD was first named and described in 1984 by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a South African psychiatrist, in a journal article that highlighted a group study in Maryland. Although the condition occurred in various parts of the world, over the years, he found the condition to be more prevalent in northern latitudes. “The prevalence of SAD increases the further people live from the equator,” he says. “In one study … my colleagues and I found that in Florida, the prevalence of SAD was only 1.5% of the population, whereas in New Hampshire, it was almost 10%.”
Regardless of the reasons and factors associated with your seasonal depression, there are various treatment options and at-home remedies available to change your song.
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“Some people experience a mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and may also feel depressed. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up. The condition in the summer can include heightened anxiety.”U.S. National Library of Medicine
Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
Regardless of which season typically sets off your depression, symptoms are typically minor at first and worsen as the season progresses. They can also vary from one person to the next, depending on where the person lives and the severity of the season. For example, someone who lives in Alaska — one of the coldest states in the U.S. — might experience more severe symptoms in the winter than someone who lives in Tennessee. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of seasonal depression include:
- Feelings of depression for hours every day, or almost every day
- A loss of interest in once-enjoyable hobbies and other activities
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- General lack of energy
- Lethargy or agitation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Appetite changes
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt or hopelessness
- Frequent suicidal thoughts
- Changes in sleeping patterns (oversleeping or insomnia)
- Weight gain or loss
In many cases, substance abuse is associated with depression, which can result in many other symptoms. The good news is, The Recovery Village is equipped to treat depression as a co-occurring disorder with substance abuse, with inpatient and outpatient programs available.
Signs and Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
There are various professional treatment options and at-home remedies (depending on the severity of the depression) that can help with SAD. Some of the most common ways include:
Light Therapy: Also known as phototherapy, this consists of exposure to sunlight or certain wavelengths of light using fluorescent lamps, polychromatic polarized light, and various other forms of light. The correlation between light and mood has been studied by hundreds of researchers over the years. According to a study conducted by the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne, levels of serotonin (the “happy hormone” found naturally in the brain) are lower in the winter than in the summer. The only element that affected the moods of the participants in the study was the amount of daily sunlight exposure.
Medications: Antidepressants are prescribed for various forms of depression, including SAD. They work by balancing chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain that affect mood, emotions and appetite. These medications are designed to reduce or eliminate symptoms of depression while also helping with sleep. “Antidepressants can help jumpstart mood and give people the boost they need to get over the symptoms of their depression,” says Eric Endlich, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Boston. “This often allows them to start doing the things they enjoy again and make better choices for themselves, which also helps contribute to a more positive mood.
Psychotherapy: This form of therapy, also referred to as talk therapy, involves using various psychological methods to improve mental health and well-being. This is done by reducing problematic beliefs, emotions and compulsions, among other thoughts and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one form of psychotherapy. This evidence-based psychosocial intervention focuses on developing coping strategies to improve mental health by eradicating unhealthy thoughts, beliefs and behaviors.
Change of Scenery: Sometimes all you need to beat the winter blues is time off and a temporary change in scenery, one that involves warmth and sunshine. Plan a trip down south for a week or just the weekend to catch some rays, escape the mundane, and recharge your body and mind. This can allow you to reap the benefits of light therapy and exercise while creating new memories. You may also want to consider permanently relocating (if possible) to a state that offers more days with temperatures in which you don’t experience SAD symptoms.
Exercise: There are many benefits that exercise can provide to the mind and body. During exercise, the body releases endorphins, which are chemicals that reduce pain perception and trigger euphoric feelings. With that in mind, making a daily effort to spend time exercising can improve your mood, not to mention your body and overall health. Aim for at least 30 minutes per session, if possible. You can run or take a brisk walk around your neighborhood or bike a few miles through the nearest trail. For an added social or competitive benefit, you might also want to sign up for a workout class, such as CrossFit, spinning or Orange Theory.
If your seasonal depression is often associated with a substance use disorder, call The Recovery Village to learn more about how a comprehensive treatment program can help. You can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to speak with someone who can give you the guidance you need or just offer a listening ear.