You might be familiar with the term “seasonal depression” indicating the more depressed moods some people feel once the warm days of summer start to wane and the longer nights of fall and winter begin to set in. You yourself might have firsthand experience of this condition.
What some don’t realize, however, is that seasonal depression — formally known as seasonal affective disorder — is actually a real mental health condition that you don’t have to handle on your own. With the right self-care tools, you’ll be equipped to handle seasonal affective disorder and capable of continuing through even the gloomiest of winter days.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a kind of depression linked to changes in season. Approximately 5 percent of the US population has a formal diagnosis, with 10-to-20 percent experiencing milder symptoms. Commonly, women will be more susceptible than men to developing SAD, but anyone can feel a shift in mood during seasonal changes.
There is no one cause of SAD, but some factors may play into its development, including:
- The changes in your biological clock that occur as sunlight diminishes; this circadian rhythm regulates sleep, hormones and mood, and a sudden change can lead to disruption in this rhythm
- Sunlight increases serotonin in our bodies (the chemical that helps keep us happy) and a lack of sunlight in the winter can drop serotonin levels and increase the risk of depression
- Melatonin is another chemical responsible for both mood and sleep patterns, and may be produced in excess during winter months in an effort to compensate for the lack of sunshine — this may lead to sluggish, sleepy moods
- Less sunlight means less exposure to natural vitamin D, which directly affects the serotonin levels in the body; if you’re not getting enough vitamin D, serotonin production will decrease and mood will change as a result
While there is nothing you can do to stop the change of seasons, there is much you can do in the way of self-care and preparation if you know that the fall and winter months are challenging for your mental health.
Seasonal affective disorder self-care
In order to combat the tired, moody and depressed attitude of seasonal affective disorder, you can begin implementing self-care strategies into your routine to help regulate your sleep and boost the “happy” chemicals in your brain.
Focus on vitamin D
Vitamin D supplements and foods rich in vitamin D (tuna, orange juice, eggs) can help to replace the vitamin D you can’t get in the fall and winter due to the shorter days and lack of exposure to sunlight. Always speak with your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet. He or she may be able to run tests that will determine whether you have a vitamin D deficiency in the first place.
Exercising is more difficult to remain accountable to in the winter because finding the motivation to go out in the cold is more difficult for some. For this reason, it’s important to find something that will keep you accountable (a fitness goal, a gym class or a workout buddy) in order to keep you moving your body.
Exercise helps increase the chemicals in your brain that improve your mood and regulate your sleep, meaning routine exercise — in the winter especially — will keep your body producing those chemicals that the winter weather will not.
While there are definitely days to stay wrapped up warm and cozy in your house (like during a blizzard), it’s important to make sure that that doesn’t become a habit. Isolating yourself can make depression worse while taking the time to be social can help decrease those isolating, lonely feelings.
Make an effort to do something social with friends or family at least once a week. It doesn’t always have to involve leaving your house; cooking dinner with your friends or watching a movie together on your couch are still great ways to socialize.
Plan a vacation
Many people vacation during the summer, but there’s absolutely something to be said about vacationing during the winter. Getting away from the cold, dreary days of the north and heading to southern, warmer temperatures can be just the change you need. Even a week in the sunshine can break up the seemingly unending December days and motivate you to persevere until spring break and summer.
Speak with a counselor
Counselors can offer perspective and encourage you to reframe your thinking about certain things. They can present healthy coping mechanisms and ways in which you can make positive changes in your life to combat seasonal affective disorder. You might consider the benefits of counseling if you find yourself struggling to combat symptoms of SAD on your own.
Help for handling seasonal affective disorder
If you are interested in beginning to work with a counselor who can help you manage your mood throughout the colder months, contact The Light Program today. Learn more about our programs by visiting our website anytime or calling our offices today at 610-644-6464.