Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Combatting Seasonal Sadness, Depression, & Loneliness
Seasonal depression can be more than just the winter blues.
Seasonal depression can be more than just the "winter or post-holiday blues." It can become a serious mental health disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
But all of us are subject to the biological causes of seasonal depression. Studies have shown that even in volunteers who do not have SAD, there is a difference between how their brains process the neurotransmitter serotonin in Fall/Winter vs. Spring/Summer. Our brains are more effective at clearing out the serotonin in the months with less light. And this means there is less serotonin available to help us with mood, energy, eating, and sleep. The degree to which serotonin levels vary may determine whether a person has normal seasonal sadness or full blown SAD, and this variation has a genetic component.
The good news is there are things we can do to combat this natural chemical process. Some things are known to help ease seasonal depression and boost serotonin levels:
- Consistently getting enough sleep
- Eating well and adding a little chocolate into your diet, while avoiding simple carbs that can bring your mood up only to let it crash
- Planning a vacation
- Taking a walk outside (bundle up first!)
- Helping others
- Playing upbeat music
- Purchasing a light box/artificial light and sitting by it 30 minutes a day
- Creating an artificial dawn with a dawn simulator
- Practicing gratitude
While a certain degree of seasonal depression is normal, being significantly depressed for days at a time, being unable to function or get out of bed, or having suicidal thoughts are not. These are symptoms of the full blown SAD and are best treated by a professional.
Loneliness and Isolation
In addition to the fact that our brains react to less light during winter by getting rid of serotonin more efficiently, many of us also tend to become more isolated during the winter (bad weather, illness, etc.). And isolation can lead to loneliness and depression.
The same way that our brains are sensitive to changes in light, they also pick up on both our isolation and our feelings of loneliness. Other neurotransmitters in addition to serotonin get involved, such as dopamine (which increases a sense of well-being when close to others and therefore decreases during lonely times) and norepinephrine (which can trigger a “fight or flight” response and make it hard to sleep or relax).
Therefore, it feels important for all of us to be mindful of our emotional wellbeing during the winter. The risk of depression is great, but being purposeful about self-care and connecting with others can greatly alleviate this risk.
Some ideas, in addition to those mentioned previously:
- Make an effort to get to events and social engagements. Ask for rides if necessary or invite others over if getting out is too tough for you during the cold months.
- Use technology to your advantage to maintain connections. Texts, emails, Facebook, etc. all can enhance a sense of connection with the world and at least help you stay in touch with family and friends. (Also pen and paper still work as well).
- Check-in on your friends. This act of caring will be good for you too!
- Resolve to make a change and tell someone about it!
Make a Resolution
It may seem odd to propose setting resolutions as a way of combatting depression, but it is said that most resolutions fail because people are not specific enough, have not formulated a plan, and have no accountability to anyone. Working on a successful resolution, might help combat depression not only because it would provide distraction and keep us busy, but also because it would require us to share our goals with someone else. And this act of sharing is a way to stay connected. Imagine what it might do for our serotonin to make a plan with a friend to go for a 10 minute walk in the sunlight once a week?
You can also contact the caring professionals at the Behavioral Wellness Clinic for help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.