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SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder is an apt name for the sad and slightly depressing mood some people experience during winter. In fact, most of us experience mood changes with each season. The colder seasons, fall and winter, are when our moods drop. You may experience lower energy levels, loose interest in your favorite activities and have trouble sleeping.
Luckily, there are some simple ways to tackle winter blues and SAD and ensure they do not disrupt your sleep.
What Causes Seasonal Mood Changes?
We have known about SAD for decades, but researchers are still not sure what causes it. A widely accepted theory suggests that the length of daylight in various seasons is behind our mood changes.
During the colder seasons of fall and winter, days are shorter and we receive less daylight. Experts think this triggers a host of changes in our body, starting with a disruption in our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that governs our sleep and wake cycle.
This disruption not only affects our sleep quality (because of a reduction in melatonin), it also messes up with our moods and emotions.
Another theory suggests that lower levels of vitamin D caused by fewer daylight hours could also contribute to winter blues. Inadequate vitamin D is linked to mental health problems as well as sleeping difficulty and fatigue.
It could also be that the colder seasons keep us from getting outdoors. Being cooped up indoors is not exactly good for your mental health. We also become less active, we don't see our friends as often and we may even have to give up or reduce some of our favorite activities like camping, driving and sports.
All these changes that the seasons force upon us can trigger winter blues.
Winter Blues vs. Seasonal Affective Disorder: Are They The Same Thing?
Before we go on, it’s important to distinguish between winter blues and seasonal affective disorder. Yes, they are two different things and it’s essential to distinguish between them.
Winter blues is not a serious condition and it’s not considered a medical diagnosis. It’s just a mild feeling of sadness that typically resolves in a short period. Winter blues may sometimes not even be connected to the season at all, but can be triggered by stressful holiday events or missing loved ones.
SAD, on the other hand, is a pretty serious form of seasonal depression. Its effects are severe enough to interfere with your life.
While winter blues are fairly common, SAD is a less commonplace condition. It mostly affects people in the Northern parts of the US like Alaska and Washington where winter days are the shortest.
Symptoms of Winter Blues and SAD
As we’ve mentioned, with winter blues, you’ll just feel down. This feeling of sadness may be accompanied by some fatigue, low grade anxiety, listlessness and difficulty focusing on tasks. Your moods can also make it harder to fall asleep.
When you need to be worried is when these symptoms become more severe as it may indicate seasonal depression. If you experience the following, see your doctor for diagnosis.
- A deep feeling of sadness almost all the time, to the point where you are unable to get out of bed or carry out your usual tasks.
- Low energy levels.
- Sleeping too much. Some people may also experience insomnia.
- Food cravings, especially sugar and carbs.
- A loss of interest in your favorite activities.
- Lack of interest in social activities. You just want to isolate yourself from people.
- Suicidal thoughts.
How to Tackle Winter Blues: 3 Options to Improve Your Mental Health
If you have winter blues, you likely don't need to go to a doctor. A few changes to your lifestyle and behavior will cheer you right back up. Remember that winter blues are strongly linked to less sunlight, so you need to do things that get you outdoors and into the sunlight. Here are a few ideas.
- Try to spend some time outside each day. Even a short walk will help you feel more alert and keep your circadian clock running smoothly.
- Let the sunlight into your home. When you wake up, open the curtains and blinds to make the indoors as bright as possible.
- Don't neglect your workout routine; it will keep you sane in the cold dreary months. If you cannot go on a jog outside, workout at home (even if it is skipping rope or body workouts) or go to the gym.
- It’s tempting to give in to your cravings and gouge yourself on unhealthy foods, but they will make your moods worse. Try to eat as healthy as possible. You can also try intermittent fasting. It’s been shown to improve mood and depression symptoms.
- Try to see your friends as often as possible or find social activities you can engage in. Loneliness is terrible for your mental health no matter the season, but particularly harmful during winter.
- Make your home, and especially your bedroom more lively and relaxing. Get some nice wall wart, put a vase of flowers by the bedside, get a colorful duvet cover and anything else that perks you up.
Something else you can try at home is light therapy. This involves exposing yourself to bright artificial light for half an hour each morning. Light therapy keeps your circadian clock working as usual and it’s been proven to be highly effective at treating SAD.
For light therapy to work, you need a lamp that’s at least 10,000 LUX, which is about as bright as ambient sunlight. You can get one online like this one from Verilux.
To keep winter blues at bay, use a light therapy lamp each morning starting from fall all the way until spring.
Treatment (Therapy and/or Medication)
For severe cases of seasonal depression, see a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment.
One of the most common treatments for SAD is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. It helps you manage your thoughts. Once you get started with a therapist, you can even do some CBT on yourself.
Your doctor may also recommend antidepressants if symptoms are severe or if you don't respond well to therapy.
But in many cases, therapy combined with behavioral changes and light therapy is enough to tackle even the most serious cases of seasonal affective disorder.