As the days get shorter and the air gets colder, you may start to feel down and lack energy. If this happens to you every year around this time, you could be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression or anxiety that strikes at the same time of year each year. Typically, this occurs in the fall as daylight hours shorten and continues through the winter months. Less commonly, some people experience SAD in the spring as daylight hours lengthen.
Some common symptoms of SAD include feeling moody, anxious, sad, or lacking energy. You may sleep more than usual but still feel lethargic. You may lose interest in activities that usually bring joy, crave carbohydrates like bread and pasta, experience either weight gain or weight loss, and find it hard to focus or make decisions.
Multiple factors can contribute to SAD. One of these factors is our biological clock or circadian rhythm. This internal clock helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle, and less sunlight in the fall and winter can disrupt that balance. Other biological factors include changes in melatonin and serotonin levels. Melatonin plays a role in regulating sleep and mood, and sunlight exposure affects its levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood, and a lack of sunlight can cause it to drop, contributing to depression and anxiety.
According to some studies, women are more likely to develop SAD than men, and living farther from the equator increases risk. Genetics and environment appear to play a role in SAD too, including factors like family gatherings around holidays and being stuck indoors due to inclement weather.
Thankfully, there are options for treating SAD. One way is to exercise both the body and mind. Physical activity and movement can help lift mood, and practices like yoga, tai chi, and qigong can help relieve stress and improve focus. Some people find relief from practices like meditation and guided imagery, and massage therapy or acupuncture can help move physical energy that might be contributing to feelings of sadness or anxiety.
Light therapy is another option. This involves sitting in front of a specialized light therapy box or full spectrum plant light to simulate the bright light of the sun. Artificial light therapy can stimulate the pineal gland in the brain, which can help regulate mood. Dawn simulation, where a dim light goes on while you sleep and gradually gets brighter, is another way to expose yourself to more light.
In some cases, medication may be necessary. Antidepressants like SSRIs address the symptoms of depression and anxiety with associated insomnia, excessive worry, and decreased appetite. Bupropion is an extended-release antidepressant that can help with depressive symptoms associated with low energy levels, poor motivation, and increased sleep. SNRI antidepressants like venlafaxine and duloxetine address symptoms of depression and anxiety with associated excessive worry, low energy levels, and poor motivation.
Counseling can also be helpful. Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors that contribute to depression or anxiety. Counseling can also help you develop healthy ways to cope with SAD and manage stress.
Finally, certain nutritional and dietary supplements may be helpful. St. John’s Wort, SAMe, melatonin, omega-3 fatty acids, and huperzine are all options for addressing mild depression or anxiety symptoms. However, it’s important to discuss these options with your healthcare provider, as some supplements may conflict with medications you’re already taking.
SAD is a real and valid condition affecting many people, yet there are treatments and tools available. With the right combination of counseling, medication, and lifestyle changes, you can find relief from SAD and improve your overall quality of life.
Written by Marion Ross, PhD