The seasonal chill is setting in, there are fewer hours of daylight, and we’re layering on sweaters and snuggling in blankets. If you’re starting to feel a little off (and we’re not talking about a cold), you may be wondering if it’s just the change of seasons or if it’s something else. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression brought on by the change in season. Typically, it sets in when the days start to get short in the fall and winter and goes away during the spring and summer, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).
“About 5% of people in the U.S. suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder,” says Deirdre Brett Fraller, DNP, of Alleviant Health in Colorado, adding that she’s seen a dramatic increase in people seeking care for SAD and depression with the pandemic. “People are not getting out of the house as much, so they are not getting as much sunlight, and insufficient sunlight is known to increase risk for SAD.”
In fact, a recent study published in JAMA found the prevalence of depression during COVID has been three times higher than before the pandemic. “While it is too soon to know exact statistics, it stands to reason that over this winter, SAD prevalence will increase similarly,” she adds.
Of course, SAD is bigger than just feeling down. We connected with top experts to get insight on the causes, how to know whether or not you have it and treatment options.
As Fraller touched on, one of the main causes of SAD is the lack of exposure to sunlight, which impacts the brain’s chemistry.
The brain chemical serotonin helps to regulate mood. In those suffering from SAD, the changes in serotonin and melatonin (a hormone responsible for maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycle) levels disrupt our natural daily rhythms. According to the NIH, this results in an inability to adjust to seasonal changes in day length, leading to mood and behavior changes.
Similar to regular depression, SAD involves feeling depressed most days, losing interest in activities you once found enjoyable, sleeping too much, and having low energy or constant fatigue. You may also experience changes in appetite (eating too much or too little), a decreased interest in social activities or sex, and thoughts of suicide. Of course, SAD only comes around seasonally, whereas depression can last year-round.
“The biggest distinction between feeling down and having Seasonal Affective Disorder is the degree to which it is negatively impacting your life, as well as the duration for which it persists,” says Lin Sternlicht, LMHC and founder of Family Addiction Specialist based in New York City. “If your mood is contributing to adverse effects in any area of your life such as your relationships, career or general responsibilities and well-being, you may want to speak with a mental health professional to be assessed.”
Sternlicht adds that some of these feelings can come and go. However, if they persist for more than 1–2 weeks, that’s also a reason to seek an expert opinion.
While medication, including antidepressants, can be a treatment for SAD, there are a lot of simple intervention options for SAD that can be performed in the comfort of your own home. Before acting on any one option, make sure to consult with an expert, like a psychologist or physician.
1. LIGHT THERAPY
Light therapy is what it sounds like: Using light to treat an issue. During light therapy, you sit near a lightbox. It emits a bright light that mimics natural outdoor light, something not as readily available during the winter.
“Light therapy is exposure to artificial light during the months when the symptoms are present,” says Valentina Dragomir, psychotherapist and founder of PsihoSensus. “This form of therapy simulates the exposure to sunlight-balancing serotonin, melatonin, circadian rhythm, which can lead to an improved emotional state.”
2. COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a common form of talk therapy that’s effective for a range of problems including depression.
“Your therapist may have you keep a mood log which may help you analyze what is triggering your low mood, and then create solutions to help you cope, such as helping you change your thought and belief patterns,” says Sternlicht.
Food is a powerful tool at the end of our fork. If you choose your eats wisely, you could definitely impact SAD, says Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” “Lean into options that have mood-boosting omega-3’s from fatty fish or even chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts.”
Naidoo also recommends eating fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, beans and lentils, which help heal our vital microbiome, resulting in a better mood.
Exercise is the most effective natural mood booster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity cardio (i.e., brisk walking) every week. For even greater health benefits (e.g., reduced risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and fat gain), double these recommendations.
“Even 10 minutes of walking or doing something simple such as 10 squats in place can make a difference,” says Sternlicht. “And if you are not yet ready to go to the gym with COVID-19 still circulating, you can get just as good of a workout at home with no equipment.”
Although this may be challenging during the winter, and compounded by COVID-19, your best bet is to engage with positive and supportive family, friends and colleagues. “Although in-person engagement is most effective, online video chats are a great tool during this time,” adds Sternlicht. “It will be more effective than a phone call, text or email.”
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