Finding the Joy in Winter Again: Conquering Seasonal Affective Disorder
My Experience with S.A.D.
Last year I experienced seasonal affective disorder for the first time that I can remember. Several of my family members have combated depression throughout my life. I lost my younger brother when he was 18 to depression. Yet, when I began to develop symptoms of depression as autumn turned to winter, I thought, this isn’t my story, it’s theirs. This isn’t happening. I don’t know why I felt SAD couldn’t be my answer. It was difficult for me to accept what I was experiencing, almost as difficult as getting out of my bed in January. I began to spiral. I would want to be productive & be a good mother & partner. The more I fixated on how I was letting myself and my family down, the worse I became. I knew something had to change and quickly. I know where depression can lead if not treated. So I reached out & became more aware of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and that a lot of my close friends and family also experience S.A.D.
After doing some research and asking those who I knew combated S.A.D., I found some ways to deal with my Winter Blues. This included my partner’s wonderful gift of a light box (which I lovingly refer to as my ‘Lizard Light’ because I feel like an iguana basking in a heat lamp) & finding out I was deficient in Vitamin D. At the time I was also an insomniac but quickly ‘cured’ this after finding that I was magnesium deficient as well. After getting my sleep schedule under control, finally getting the sleep I needed, and ‘sunning’ under my light, I found the symptoms of S.A.D. become less of a struggle for me. I was able to enjoy winter with my kiddos again as well as be a productive and present member of my family.
Now that I know how to handle my personal case of SAD every year, I have noticed a lot of my loved ones and friends struggling with it and wanted to offer some insight and potential help. I am not a doctor or therapist & cannot medically suggest any kind of treatment or etc. , but I will share resources available!
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
So what is S.A.D.?? Seasonal Affective Disorder or ‘S.A.D.’, is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer. There is a rarer form of S.A.D. that occurs in the summer as well.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Not everyone who has SAD experiences the same symptoms. Common symptoms of winter-onset SAD include:
- Change in appetite, especially craving sweet or starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Sleeping more than normal
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and anxiety
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Avoidance of social situations
- Loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy
- Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Physical problems, such as headaches.
WHAT CAUSES S.A.D.?
The exact causes of SAD are unknown, but there are some risk factors and clues as to what may cause the winter blues. If you are female, live far from the equator, are young in age, have a family history of SAD, and/or already have depression or bipolar disorder, you are more likely to experience SAD. Some of the potential causes of SAD are:
- Lack of sunlight in winter months is the first clue. Those who are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder are more vulnerable to the changes in sunlight. Their biological clock is altered by not being regularly exposed to sunlight.
- This lack of sunlight may trigger your body to increase its production in the hormone Melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for sleepiness. An increase in this hormone may cause symptoms such as drowsiness and lethargy.
- SAD could also be caused by a lack of the hormone Serotonin. “One study found that people with SAD have 5 percent more serotonin transporter protein in winter months than summer months. Higher serotonin transporter protein leaves less serotonin available at the synapse”.
- Vitamin D deficiency is another potential cause of SAD. This is because vitamin D has a role to play when it comes to serotonin activity.
WHAT TREATMENTS ARE AVAILABLE FOR THOSE WITH S.A.D.?
I am not a doctor and cannot recommend treatment options. I can disclose what common treatments are currently used to aid in the management of Seasonal Affective Disorder. These treatments are:
- Light Therapy – Light Light Light!! Get outside, wake up to light, sit next to a window, brighten your room, and/or use a light box. I use a light therapy box in the morning while I eat breakfast to combat SAD. Personally, my ‘lizard light’ seems to benefit me a lot, especially on dreary rainy days. My office desk also faces a bright window.
- Get Moving – Go for a walk (light therapy & movement!) or get to the gym. Pick up a movement art like Yoga or a Flow art like silk fans, hoops, or dragon staff (There are SO many to choose from!). I know it is difficult to convince yourself to get moving some days. There were days for me that just convincing myself to slide out of bed seemed like an achievement, but once I got moving I always felt so much better than I had laying in bed.
- Vitamin D Supplements – I supplement with Vitamin D capsules. You can ask your medical care provider to run a blood panel to see what deficiencies you may have prior to supplementing. Certain vitamins are ‘fat soluble’ and should be treated with more caution than those that are ‘water soluble’ (the ones you just flush out via urine).
- Goal Setting – I found that setting goals to accomplish during the winter and things to look forward to after winter has been truly constructive personally. I have photos around my desk work space of last years festivals and trips to remind me that I have so much awaiting me once this snow clears up! Also, there are so many things I can still accomplish inside while it is dreary out, such as Contact Juggling!
- Vulnerability- One thing that has been helpful for me this year in combating S.A.D. is leaning on my close friends and family and trusting them with my vulnerability. It’s okay to feel this way and its okay to reach out. There are people who want to be there to support you, but you have to give them the chance to do so.
- Psychotherapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy has shown to be beneficial for those experiencing SAD. Maybe look into making an appointment with your therapist.
- Medication – Medications such as SSRIs are also used to manage S.A.D. I don’t have any personal experiences with SSRIs but there is absolutely no shame in requiring medications to help you balance your mental state. Talk to your doctor if you think this may be a resource for you.
You should see a doctor if your symptoms are getting in the way of your work or relationships, if you feel despair about the future, are suicidal, or if you have major sleep or eating changes, such as a weight gain of 15 or 20 pounds.