Seasonal Affective Disorder and Your Mental Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Your Mental Health

Apr 14th 2021

Last weekend I was prepping for my Sunday walk around the lake, which takes about an hour. It’s in a beautiful part of Tennessee, my home state, and the trees are mostly bare. What few do still have leaves are shades of brown and red, and I look forward to listening for squirrels rustling in the fallen leaves and watching the turtles doze on logs every week.

But last week, oof, I made a mistake. I was only 10 minutes behind schedule yet at 4:45 pm it was nearly pitch black in the woods. Because I was late, and because a week’s difference had moved sunset up quite a bit, I found myself hustling to get out of the woods before the park closed, and was pretty scared walking by myself in a large natural area in the dark.

I made it out just fine, but it was a good reminder of how bad short winter days feel. If you’re like me, the early darkness makes it easy to stay inside, stay sedentary and sometimes, feel pretty depressed. It’s unfortunate, but you’re not alone—some call it the winter blues, but there’s a name for that sad feeling you get on cold, short days. It’s known as Seasonal Affective Disorder and it’s pretty common.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just feeling a little down. According to Mayo Clinic, Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression related to seasonal changes. SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year, with symptoms usually beginning in the fall and continuing into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less commonly, SAD can cause depression in the spring or summer.

Mayo Clinic says the following are common symptoms of SAD:

  • Feeling depressed most of the time
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Low energy
  • Problems sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Suicidal ideations

Fall and winter SAD can also present seasonal-specific symptoms like oversleeping, weight gain, and excessive tiredness. It’s easy to fall into these patterns when it gets dark so early, and you may find yourself not wanting to wake up, napping a lot, or not wanting to be active and work out—it certainly happens to me!

How Big Of A Problem Is SAD?

Clearly, SAD is a serious problem and the symptoms can really negatively impact your life. People who struggle with SAD also find it to be a recurring problem, meaning it keeps coming back over and over for years. If you already have depression or anxiety, it can really pile up and make for a nasty combo.

One thing to remember is you’re not alone. According to PsychologyToday.com, as many as 10% of Americans have moderate to severe SAD. That’s millions of people. Up tp 20% have mild SAD, and that’s just the Americans we know about! As always, reporting on mental health may not include accurate counts of marginalized people or those without homes or access to the Internet.

SAD can drastically impact your social life, career and work life, relationships, sex drive and more, so it’s important to take it seriously. If you’re struggling with SAD, there are many treatment options!

What Can I Do About SAD?

The good news is there are multiple treatment options for SAD, and all at different price points. It’s extremely likely you’ll find something that works for your budget and lifestyle.

  • Vitamin D deficiency can add to, or cause, SAD. In previous reporting on SAD and how it affects homeless individuals, many sources recommended Vitamin D supplements as a low-cost way to help with this type of depression.
  • Light therapy is another form of treatment available, according to Mayo Clinic, and while there are potential side effects they’re unlikely. You can purchase light therapy lamps on Amazon.

  • Of course, additional natural daylight time is also a treatment option. Try setting your alarm clock to rise with the sun and spend at least 20 minutes in direct sunlight early in the morning. It’s an energetic start to your day that can make you feel much better! If early-morning isn’t your thing, setting a time to walk each week outdoors with a friend could also be a great way to increase activity and nature exposure, boosting overall mental health.
  • Last but certainly not least, your SAD and depression may require medication to help you feel better. Don’t feel ashamed to reach out to a therapist or medical expert for help—you shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. They can offer talk therapy, and prescriptions if needed, sometimes all via telehealth. You may want to call your insurance provider to ask which medical providers are in network, and covered.

No matter which treatment option makes sense for you, don’t let SAD take over your life! I struggle to stay awake and be productive during the winter months, but my weekly walks and therapy help a lot. I’m also planning to introduce new vitamin supplements that could help make my days even better.

SAD is common, but it doesn’t have to rule you. Make an action plan as soon as possible and start taking steps for your mental health. We need your brain and your hard work, and we won’t let SAD stop you from being yourself.