What is Seasonal Depression (AKA SAD) and How do you Deal with It?
Oh, December, the month of the greatest irony. It is the darkest yet the most celebrated time of year. While most people look forward to this time of year for months, and find joy and peace in the holiday exuberance, for many of us, the arrival of winter means the arrival of overwhelming fatigue, emptiness, and the desire to lie in bed all day doing absolutely nothing.
The “winter blues” is indeed a real thing, not just a figurative term that people use to be less focused as the holidays approach. 15%-20% of the population experiences it at some point in their lives.
What is Seasonal Depression (or SAD)?
For the most part, it’s the same as regular depression (same hollow thoughts and feelings, same sense of everything being heavy, same existential despair, same… you get the idea), but there are certain depressive symptoms that are generally more common with seasonal depression. These symptoms tend to be the ones relating to having low energy, like physical and mental fatigue, needing to sleep a lot, and craving more carbs than usual.
Experiencing some level of seasonal depression is pretty common, but if it’s reached a severe enough level that it significantly interferes with your ability to get things done on a daily basis, it can be clinically diagnosed as “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) (yes, the acronym for it is literally “sad”. I will always wonder whether the American Psychiatric Association deliberately decided to spice up the DSM with a little bit of black humour, or if it’s just the happiest of *sad* coincidences).
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
The main biological cause of seasonal depression is a lack of sunlight. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (AKA brain chemical) that is responsible for regulating our mood and sense of well-being, our ability to feel calm, and our willpower. Our brains’ production of it directly correlates to the amount of sunlight we get each day. From around November to January, when we’re closest to the winter solstice, and particularly in places that are far from the equator, where changes in seasons are significant, the days around this time of year are really short. Many people, even if they are normally not prone to depression, begin to feel the fatigue and despair caused by lower serotonin levels.
What you can do to Help Ease Seasonal Depression
Get Some Sunlight
Since the main contributor to seasonal depression is a lack of sunlight, increasing the amount of sunlight you get everyday is the simplest way to improve your state of mind.
Go Outside: The most natural way to get more sunlight is to just spend more time outside while the sun’s out. A good goal to set for yourself is an hour per day. A great way to spend that time is by going for a walk (physical activity also helps with depression and fatigue!), but don’t worry if that seems overwhelming. Just sitting outside anywhere in the sun will be beneficial. If you can’t spend that much time outside, spending as much of the daylight hours by windows will be enough to have a positive impact on your mood.
Light Therapy Lamps: If simply getting more sunlight during the daylight hours is not enough to make up for the shortness of the days, there are lamps that are designed to combat SAD by mimicking sunlight. They’re recognized as a legitimate, effective treatment option just like medication and therapy.
Wake up early (and go to bed early/when you physically feel sleepy so that you get enough sleep): I know, this one sounds impossible to do in the winter when you already barely have enough energy to get out of bed at all, but our bodies are designed to wake up as the sun rises. Since the sun sets so early these days, waking up earlier rather than sleeping through the first few hours of daylight will maximize the amount of sunlight you get each day. The more consistently you do this, the more your internal schedule will be regulated and the easier it will be.
Also Do the Things that Help all Forms of Depression
The seasons may be responsible for SAD, but it’s not immune to all the other methods that improve other forms of depression.
Practise self-care: Both “boring” self-care (things that take up your energy but help you in the long-term like showering, brushing your teeth, changing your sheets, getting a reasonable amount of work done, going for a walk, etc.), and “fun” self-care (things that are more rewarding and indulgent that help you want to get through the day, like eating or drinking something that you love, buying something that you’ve wanted for a while, doing your nails or make-up, doing something creative, just giving yourself permission to relax and do nothing for a while, etc.) are important to your well-being.
Spend time with other people: Whether you love talking to your friends or socializing feels like a chore to you, communicating with other people is a human need, as integral to our health as exercise and sleep. Face-to-face time with friends or family is always best, but if that’s not feasible, Facetime, call, or text people in your life. If you feel like you don’t have anyone that you can talk to, or if talking to the people in your life seems overwhelming, you can find an online community or forum of like-minded people so that you’re not completely isolated.
Give therapy a try: Even if the idea of talking to a stranger is terrifying, it can be incomparably beneficial to have a professional to work through things with once you get used to it.
Talk to your doctor: They might give you more information about resources and treatments like therapists, light therapy lamps, potentially medication (it’s usually best to try light therapy before moving on to medication), and other options that are available.
When it’s Not Because of Serotonin
Whether it’s the stress of exams and assignments being due, travelling home, or going on a trip during the holidays, anxiety about another year passing, the obligations and family time that are part of the holidays, or something else, there are tons of stressors this time of year that can be reasons why we might be feeling symptoms of seasonal depression that aren’t necessarily biological.
A few things to remember if the things happening in your life are causing distress:
You aren’t obligated to continue with traditions that stress you out just for the sake of tradition. And if you’re an adult, you don’t have to spend time with family members that make you feel down if you don’t want to. It’s hard to break traditions and feel like you’re disappointing family members, but you need and deserve to do whatever is best for your mental health. New traditions are hard and awkward to start, but after a couple of years they can be way better than the old ones.
If it’s life stressors that are bringing you down, then treatments that are designed to influence your brain chemistry, like light therapy and medication, won’t be as effective as treatments that are designed to help you work through and cope with those stressors. In this case, therapy will probably be the most helpful option for you. If you don’t have access to a therapist due to the costs and/or wait-lists, having a good support system (at least one person that you trust and can rely on and talk to) is very important. You can also do research on CBT, DBT, and mindfulness strategies. While it’s easier to learn how to use them with a therapist, if you read enough about them and experiment with trying out different ones, you will almost definitely find some that work for you and make your life easier.
Even if it seems like all your distress is due to things happening in your life, around this time of year the lack of sunlight can make stressors worse and affect you without you realizing it, so trying to get more sunlight is still a good idea.
Remember that even if you are still functioning relatively normally and getting things done, but you consistently feel down or “off”, talking to a doctor or seeking out resources is still totally valid. You don’t need it to be intense enough to feel like it could be clinically diagnosed as SAD to be struggling and to deserve help. If you feel like your’re struggling and in pain on any level, even if you think it’s mild and not a big deal compared to what other people deal with, you deserve to have that pain acknowledged and eased.
This time of year can absolutely suck despite the fact that it’s “supposed” to be “the most wonderful time of the year”. To those of you who are not struggling, look out for your friends, pay attention to the little signs that show that someone might not be okay, and support them if they tell you that they’re not. To anyone who’s currently struggling, there are so many options available once we have the courage to reach out. And if all else fails, know that the winter solstice is only a few days away. Winter won’t last forever. As dark as it is, a week from now, the days will only be getting longer.
Post by: Sonia Randhawa