Does the thought of driving home from work at 5 PM in complete darkness get you down? If so, you’re not alone. You’ve probably heard about the “winter blues”—when temperatures drop and the days get shorter, we stay indoors more often, we tire more easily, and we may feel a little melancholy. But it might be more than just “the blues” if you’re experiencing a persistent sadness that’s present most days and is interfering with your ability to function or engage in day-to-day activities. If this is a pattern that’s occurred for at least two years in a row and impacts you at the same time each year, it might be seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
Nearly 20 percent of U.S. adult population experiences some level of seasonal depression. SAD is four times more common in women than in men, and the average age of onset is 20. People with SAD experience a drastic change in their overall mood during this time of the year, and in most cases, depression, anxiety, and fatigue occur. Other common symptoms include irritability, feelings of despair, decreased interest in socializing, inability to concentrate, increased appetite, and weight gain.
What causes seasonal affective disorder? SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As seasons change, some people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that causes them to be out of step with their daily schedule. SAD is far more prevalent in northern climates far from the equator, where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter.
Seasonal depression has a multi-faceted relationship with eating disorders. People suffering from seasonal affective disordered often report an increased appetite. Those cravings tend to be for foods that are higher in carbohydrates and rich in starch. They also report an escalation in these cravings when they’re depressed, anxious, or lonely. Combined with decreased energy and declining mood, these cravings can create a higher risk for binge eating behaviors. Research has shown that those with bulimia also have seasonal patterns of mood and appetite similar to those with SAD. If you find that winter weather is triggering eating disorder behaviors, be sure to rally your support system around you and seek professional help if you need it.
There are a number of effective treatment options for seasonal depression:
- Phototherapy, or light therapy, is a commonly prescribed treatment for seasonal depression. The treatment involves sitting in front of a “light box” for approximately thirty minutes daily. Research has shown that light therapy can relieve the symptoms of seasonal depression in as many as 70% of cases.
- Anti-depressant medications are highly effective in treating winter depression, and have been shown to improve mood, energy, and sleep patterns. One of the ways in which these medications work is by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
- Behavioral interventions can also be helpful in reducing symptoms of seasonal depression. If seasonal depression is getting your down, consider incorporating these strategies:
- Engage in activities with friends and family each day to ward off feelings of loneliness or isolation.
- Make it a point to get outside in the sunlight for at least a portion of the day, if possible. Schedule a walk with a co-worker during your lunch break or sit outside and read the paper.
- Get plenty of sleep on a consistent schedule. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep daily.
- Avoid the use of alcohol or other substances, which can worsen depressive symptoms, complicate eating disorder symptoms, and disrupt your sleep.
Focus on the highlights of the season. This year, try looking for positive activities in which to get involved. Now is the perfect time to volunteer for a cause that’s important to you, plan a weekend getaway, or try a new activity like snow tubing or ice skating. You can even practice guided imagery or meditation—just because it’s frosty outside doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself relaxing on a warm beach! Try not wish away the winter season. Learn to live mindfully and you can enjoy what every time of year has to offer.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, Executive Director at The Body Image Therapy Center.