If you find yourself feeling especially blue during the winter time you might be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Seasonal Depression. SAD can have effects on your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels, taking a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships and social life to work, school, and your sense of self-worth. You may feel like a completely different person to who you are in the summer: hopeless, sad, tense, or stressed, with no interest in friends or activities you normally love.
While there are cases of this disorder during summer, it usually begins during the fall and winter months as the days become shorter and the weather gets colder.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are similar to those of major depression differentiated by the absence of the symptoms during spring and summer months.
Common symptoms of SAD are:
Depressed mood, low self-esteem
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
Appetite and weight changes
Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
Unexplained aches and pains
Changes in sleeping pattern
Fatigue and lack of energy; reduced sex drive
Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair
As with anything, the severity of these symptoms may vary from person to person, if you find that your symptoms are overwhelming and negatively affecting your life you should seek professional help.
Seasonal affective disorder can affect anyone but is most common with people who live far north or south of the equator. The causes for SAD aren't exactly known, but a lot of theories revolve around the fact that the days get shorter during winter time and the reduced exposure to sunlight affects our bodies. For example:
Your body's internal clock is dictated by the changes between light and dark in order to regulate your sleep, mood, and appetite. As the sun appears for only a few hours a day (if it even shows up from behind the clouds) will affect your internal clock, feeling as though it should be in the resting phase that comes along with the night-time. This may leave you feeling groggy and sleepy during inconvenient times.
When it's dark, your brain produces melatonin - the hormone that helps you sleep. During the day sunlight sends a message to the brain stopping the production of this hormone so you can feel awake and alert. As you might see it coming, due to the shorter exposure to sunlight your body produces too much melatonin which leaves you low on energy and unmotivated.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood. Once more, the lack of sunlight causes your body to reduce its production of serotonin which affects your sleep, memory, and appetite and can lead to depression.
Now that we know a little bit more, what can we do about it?
1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible
When possible, go outside for a walk during daylight and expose yourself to the sun. Even if in small doses, sunlight can boost your serotonin levels and help to improve your mood.
Open up your curtains and allow natural light to flow into your home and try sitting near the window to absorb any sunlight you can get.
Try getting lightbulbs that imitate the look of natural light, this may help trick your brain into producing serotonin and limit the production of melatonin.
2. Exercise regularly
If your space allows it, try to exercise in the sunlight, whether that means going outside, or sticking close to your window. Physical activity helps to boost your energy levels and is known for the production of serotonin. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity on most days. Even something as simple as walking a dog, for example, can be good exercise for you and the animal, as well as a great way to get outdoors and interact with other people.
3. Reach out to family and friends
Keeping in touch with your loved ones is vital in combating isolation and helping you to manage your SAD. Participate in social activities even if you don't feel like it. Getting out of the house and placing yourself in a different environment with someone you love will help you to get out of the funk instead of closing yourself off in your home.
Motivating yourself during seasonal depression is difficult. It's much easier and more comfortable to stay in bed at home, but that will only drive you further down into depression. Isolation may feel comfortable and known, but it won't help. As difficult as it may be, try to take up some of these healthy habits to help you feel better during these winter months. Taking care of yourself is a full-time job. Managing seasonal affective disorder can be difficult, so take time and be kind to yourself.