Autumn is rapidly approaching, which means shorter days, cooler temperatures, and changing leaves. It also means gray skies and the looming winter, when daylight becomes even more precious and inclement weather prevents many of us from going outdoors. These circumstances can have a negative effect on mental health, even leading to a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Often dismissed as “winter blues,” SAD is actually a serious mental health disorder that affects around 10 million Americans. Luckily, there are plenty of Seasonal Affective Disorder self care strategies that you can try to lessen your seasonal depression. 

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a subtype of major depressive disorder that recurs seasonally, most commonly during the fall and winter months (although it can occur during the Spring and Summer as well). It is believed to be triggered by reduced exposure to natural sunlight, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and lead to imbalances in certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and melatonin. These imbalances can contribute to feelings of sadness, fatigue, and lethargy.

What are the Symptoms of SAD?

The symptoms of SAD are similar to those of major depressive disorder, but they occur in a predictable pattern and present during specific seasons. Some common symptoms of SAD include:

  1. Low Mood: Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair.
  2. Low Energy: Fatigue and a lack of energy, even after adequate sleep.
  3. Changes in Sleep Patterns: Insomnia or excessive sleepiness.
  4. Appetite Changes:Cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain.
  5. Loss of Interest: Reduced interest in activities once enjoyed.
  6. Difficulty Concentrating: Trouble focusing and making decisions.
  7. Social Withdrawal: Avoiding social interactions and a desire for isolation.

Who is at Risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Anyone can develop Seasonal Affective Disorder, but certain populations have a higher risk:

History of Mental Health Disorders

SAD is present in up to 3 percent of the general population. That number jumps to 20 percent in individuals with Major Depressive Disorder, and up 25 percent in individuals with Bipolar Disorder.

Family History of SAD

Like many mental health conditions, family history plays a role in your susceptibility to developing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

Low Vitamin D Levels

Reduced sunlight exposure during the fall and winter months can affect your body’s vitamin D levels. Vitamin D plays a critical role in the synthesis of serotonin. If you are already low on vitamin D, you may experience greater symptoms of depression related to this deficiency.

Living Farther From the Equator

SAD seems to be more prevalent in populations that live far north or south of the equator. This is likely due to an even greater reduction in daylight hours. Communities in the northernmost part of Alaska, for example, are in near-constant darkness from mid-November to the end of January. One study found that 9.2% of northern Alaskans exhibit symptoms of SAD. 

Self-Care Strategies for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

While SAD can be challenging, there are several self-care strategies that can help individuals manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being during the darker months:

Light Therapy

Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light box that emits bright, natural-spectrum light. This can help regulate circadian rhythms and alleviate symptoms.

Regular Exercise

Engaging in regular physical activity has been shown to boost mood and increase energy levels. 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, such as running or walking, can increase norepinephrine levels which, in turn, help regulate other neurotransmitters that deal with stress. 

Healthy Diet

Consuming a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients can help stabilize mood. Be sure to include dietary sources of Vitamin D, such as salmon and whole eggs. If you do not eat meat or animal products, ask your doctor about supplementing your vitamin D levels. 

Mindfulness and Relaxation

Practices like meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation can help manage stress and improve mood. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, in particular, has been shown to help prevent a relapse of depressive symptoms. 

Social Interaction

Withdrawal is a common complication of depressive disorders, including SAD. It is also one of the more detrimental responses, since it can impact your ability to maintain relationships, work, and personal goals. Make an effort to engage with friends and family, even if you don’t feel like it. 

Go Outside

Whenever possible, spend time outdoors during daylight hours. Absorb as much sunlight as you can to bolster natural vitamin D levels and your mood-regulating neurotransmitters. 

Establish a Routine

A disruption in your circadian rhythm may cause an upheaval to your usual routine. If necessary, establish a new one that helps you reclaim your rhythm and improve important physiological functions, like sleep. 

What if Self-Care Doesn’t Work for Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While self-care strategies can be effective, it’s important to recognize when professional help is needed. If your SAD symptoms are severe, persistent, or significantly impacting your daily functioning and quality of life, it’s time to seek the guidance of a therapist or mental health professional. They can provide specialized treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication, tailored to your individual needs.

SAD Therapist in Destin

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real and challenging condition that affects individuals up to 50 percent of the year. There is no reason to struggle for this long! If you are experiencing persistent and pervasive symptoms of SAD or another mental health disorder, please contact the professionals at the Crane Center. Our caring and experienced counselors will work with you to find the best possible strategies for you. Call or go online today to get started.