Combatting Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Beat the Winter Blues

Feeling extremely run down, tired, or even depressed? Well, there may be a reason for that. You could be experiencing the “winter blues” or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

It’s estimated that about three percent of the U.S. population suffers from SAD, and is more common in women than men.

Licensed mental health counselor, Kimble Richardson, explains the disorder and provides helpful tips for combating it.

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a type of depression that people typically experience during the winter season when there is less natural sunlight and the days are shorter.

Because light affects mood, when daylight is diminished, certain people who are very sensitive to light can experience depression. Experts believe our circadian rhythm patterns (also known as our “biological clocks”) are affected by the decrease of sunlight, and may alter our daily sleep schedules - making us more tired.

Melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles) has also been linked to SAD, because when the days get shorter and darker, we feel sleepier. There is also speculation that the decrease in sunlight also affects serotonin, one of our brain chemicals that helps regulate symptoms of depression.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of SAD?

Not all people experience the same symptoms, but there are several that are common:

  • Feeling sad or anxious 
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless 
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness 
  • Irritability 
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy 
  • Fatigue and decreased energy 
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions 
  • Difficulty sleeping (especially oversleeping) 
  • Changes in weight and craving carbohydrates such as bread and pasta 
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 

A diagnosis of SAD can occur if you have at least three consecutive winters with some of the symptoms described above, followed by a remission of those same symptoms in the spring and summer months.

In addition, your primary care physician may want to check to make sure your symptoms aren’t due to other physical conditions that have similar symptoms (such as hypothyroidism).

How Can SAD Be Combatted?

Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder may include light therapy (called phototherapy), medication management generally with antidepressants, and psychotherapy (or talk therapy).

Phototherapy using bright lights (similar to the intensity of sunlight on a bright, spring day) can decrease levels of melatonin, thereby allowing people to feel more alert during the daytime.

Simple things like rearranging your work environment and common areas at home to receive more light can also combat SAD. Increasing daytime activity and/or getting more exercise, may also be helpful. One study found that one hour of walking in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light.

If you believe you have symptoms of SAD and are struggling, consult with your doctor or a mental health professional. You can contact Community Behavioral Services and our 24-hour crisis line at 317-621-5700.