The seasons are changing, the temperature is dropping and bright, sunny days are becoming scarcer.
It’s a time of year when you may find your mood unbalanced, perhaps even more so this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And though we all experience mood swings, winter can be even harder on people suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder that is related to depression, but correlates with a time of year—most commonly the winter months.
From late fall until April, people with SAD may experience symptoms, such as decreased energy, increased need for sleep, anxious feelings and increased appetite.
Unlike general depression, a person suffering from SAD usually has episodes where they sleep and eat more.
It’s believed that decreased sunlight is the main cause of SAD. Winter daylight is short and dreary days don’t help. As your body is exposed to less sunlight, it creates more melatonin, which is responsible for your body’s sleep-wake cycle.
On the flip side, as exposure to sunlight decreases, serotonin also decreases. Serotonin is responsible for regulating mood and energy level.
If you think you may be suffering from SAD, start out by seeing your primary care provider to rule out any other possible physical issues.
If you are in otherwise good physical health, your provider can work with you on several treatment options. Every person is different, which means treatment options vary.
What You Can Do
But there is one thing every person suffering from SAD can do: Soak up the sun!
It may be cold outside, but open your curtains at home and at work, and let more sunshine into your life when you are stuck indoors.
If you do have the opportunity to get outside, try to exercise in the mornings for at least 30 minutes to help you feel energized for the rest of the day.
What Your Provider Can Do
Besides exposing yourself to more natural light and exercise, your provider may recommend light therapy or antidepressants as treatment.
There are some misconceptions when it comes to light therapy.
Many people think this is similar to lying in a tanning bed, but it’s not. Light therapy is indirect light and doesn’t expose a person to UV rays. It’s more like a reading light.
The point is to expose your body to indirect light, not direct light, for 30 to 40 minutes per day. A person can also do light therapy before waking up.
This is often referred to as “dusk/dawn simulation.” Therefore, your body adjusts to light gradually, like the sunrise, rather than going from darkness to light in a matter of moments.
If you or someone you care for is feeling SAD this winter, do something about it! While there is no cure for SAD, the sooner you take action, the better you’ll feel.
Reviewed by Carilion Clinic Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.