With the COVID-19 pandemic in the past years, winter months became more difficult for people who are in isolation and struggle with depression. Unlike common depressive episodes, seasonal patterns of depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), come and go with the seasons. This condition should not be brushed off as just “the winter blues” because SAD can become an acute type of depression with harmful consequences on one’s health.
Symptoms and Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder
People who develop seasonal affective disorder may experience a range of symptoms, including difficulty waking up or getting out of bed, daytime fatigue, a craving for certain foods, weight gain, and depressed moods on colder, darker days. SAD can also decrease motivation for work and other activities, and severe mood swings can happen. Some people’s symptoms are severe enough that regular functioning is difficult or impossible, and may even need hospitalization.
This condition tends to affect people who live in northern geographical regions where winter months are longer. Although SAD is not gender or age-specific, women of childbearing age tend to be more vulnerable than the rest of the population. Sometimes SAD can trigger chronic depression.
The main cause for this seasonal pattern of depression is less exposure to natural sunlight. Less sunlight may lead to the brain producing less serotonin, a chemical linked to the brain pathways that regulate mood. Vitamin D deficiency due to less sunlight exposure may also affect mood changes and physical fatigue. This negatively impacts one’s normal cycle of mood, energy, appetite, and sleep. Staying indoors for long periods may have the same effect as decreased natural light exposure.
Seeking Treatment for Seasonal Affect Disorder
Most people who experience this condition struggle for years before identifying the seasonal pattern. They may brush it off as a temporary thing since the symptoms don’t occur year-round. When one identifies the seasonal pattern and the reality of the situation, they should speak to health providers who may prescribe antidepressants. In cases where SAD becomes severe, one should seek help from health specialists who have expertise in treating SAD-specific conditions.
Health professionals can diagnose SAD by asking people to fill out specific questionnaires. Generally, if a person has symptoms of depression that occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years, or depressive episodes happen more frequently during a certain time of year, they likely have seasonal affective disorder. The most common medications include antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI).
Apart from medications, there are many treatment methods when it comes to SAD, such as light therapy. This is a home-based treatment using a lightbox that emits a bright light that mimics natural daylight. Immediately after one gets out of bed, one should spend time basking under this device. Meanwhile, one should also maximize their exposure to sunlight even in the winter months by spending some time outdoors at the peak of the day.
Another natural treatment for SAD is through negative air ionization. This device creates superoxide, which is a compound form of oxygen with antidepressant properties. This ionized air is the kind of air found in natural places such as at the seashore, or in a rain forest. Because indoor air in winter tends to be heated and dry, the ion levels are often reduced. By using an ionizer device daily, one may see an improvement in depressive symptoms.
Practicing Self-Care in Winter
Because the onset of SAD in winter can be gradual and incremental, it is important to practice self-care even before the days become shorter again. First, aim for a regular sleep-wake pattern that guarantees the body gets sufficient rest from the previous day’s activities. Sleep quality is directly associated with one’s mood and cognitive abilities. People who tend to experience depressive episodes must work harder at safeguarding a good night of sleep.
The second self-care aspect involves taking supplements such as Vitamin D, B complex, and other minerals that might be less present in one’s diet or environment. Combine this with eating healthy and balanced meals so that the body is fueled with enough nutrients to adjust to changes in the natural environment.
Lastly, outdoor exercise is crucial to battling depression. Try to spend some time outside every day, even when the weather is not as friendly. Even a short walk or yoga session outdoors can have tremendous effects on one’s mood and energy. If the weather doesn’t permit outdoor activity, try exercising in a room with lots of natural light.
Do you or a loved one tend to experience seasonal cycles of depressive episodes? People who develop seasonal affective disorder may experience a range of symptoms, including finding it difficult to wake up on a schedule, daytime fatigue, a craving for certain foods, weight gain, and depressed moods on colder days. Seasonal affective disorder is a serious condition, and there are ways to treat it. If you need help from mental health professionals who specialize in treating seasonal depression symptoms, visit Laguna Shores Recovery. We have a team of licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists who can walk alongside you toward recovery. If seasonal affective disorder has led you into substance use, Laguna Shores Recovery is the best place for you to heal and find hope. Our full medical residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, and 12-step programs. Early intervention is key for substance use and depression. Call us at (866) 906-3203.