While some look forward to the first snowfall of winter, others find themselves having difficulty waking in the morning, experiencing daytime fatigue, and feeling a general sense of depression this time of year. If you are feeling this way, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, is a type of depression that is driven by the change in the season. It is most common for symptoms to begin in late fall and continue into the winter months and end in the spring. Seasonal depression can occur in the summer or spring, although this is less common.
The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can have a real impact on your daily life. The good news is that, like other forms of depression, SAD is treatable.
Let’s dive into the causes of seasonal affective disorder, symptoms, and how you can start feeling better today.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
While the exact causes of seasonal affective disorder are not clear, most theories attribute the disorder to the reduction of daylight hours in winter. The reduction in daylight hours means that the days are shorter and most people experience less exposure to sunlight.
The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight can disrupt our mental and physical health.
For instance, a lack of sun exposure may result in a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.
The production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, is also linked to seasonal depression. This is because when it’s dark out, melatonin is produced at higher levels by your brain. Then, during the day the sunlight triggers the brain to stop melatonin production so that you feel awake and alert (source). During the shorter days and long nights of late fall and winter, however, your body may produce too much melatonin. This may lead you to feel sleepy and have low energy during the day.
A disruption in melatonin production can also impact your circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle, resulting in internal clocks being out of sync with external clocks. This can result in some of the symptoms associated with seasonal depression, such as feeling disoriented, low energy, lack of appetite, and feeling agitated.
What Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Feel Like?
Symptoms of seasonal depression are typically consistent with those that occur with depression. The primary difference between seasonal affective disorder and depression is that you feel relief from symptoms in the spring and summer months.
Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
Symptoms that are typically more common in seasonal depression than in other forms of depression include:
As with depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person. For many, the symptoms usually begin mildly at the start of fall and get progressively worse through the darkest days of winter. Then, by spring or early summer, the symptoms lift until you’re in remission and feel normal and healthy again (source).
Self-Help and Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to feel better if you are suffering from seasonal affective disorder. When it comes to self-help methods and treatment, it’s worth experimenting to find out what works for you because they’re definitely not one-size-fits-all.
1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible.
During the day make sure that your home and workspace are as well lit as possible. First thing in the morning, open your curtains and blinds to let in natural light. You can also hang or prop a large mirror opposite of a window to reflect more natural light into your space.
It’s also important to spend time outside in the sunshine. Spend at least half an hour outside each day if you’re able to. Sunlight cues specific areas in the retina to trigger the release of serotonin, so ditch the sunglasses if you can.
2. Use a light therapy box.
An alternative way to get more light during the day is to use a light therapy box. A light therapy box is a device that gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light.
Generally, most people with seasonal affective disorder begin treatment with light therapy in the early fall. Treatment usually continues until spring, when outdoor light alone is sufficient to sustain a good mood and higher levels of energy.
During light therapy sessions, you sit or work near a lightbox for 20 to 30 minutes a day (source). Make sure to check the manufacturer’s guidelines and if possible consult with a mental health professional to find the best recommendations for you. They may suggest that you start with shorter sessions and gradually increase the time.
3. Use a Dawn Simulator to Wake up Naturally
Light therapies are commonly used to improve symptoms of SAD. However, many people cannot tolerate sitting in front of a light fixture or just don’t have the time to do so.
An effective alternative is dawn simulation. A dawn simulator provides a gradual increase of simulated morning light just before wake-up time. The light increases from 0 to full brightness over a period of 30 minutes. Dawn simulation can help you to wake up feeling energized and decrease SAD symptoms.
4. Try Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy may also help to lift your mood and decrease symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Essential oils have been used to enhance lives for thousands of years. You can use oils to encourage a positive emotional state, improve memory and focus, and feel more energized.
Citrus essential oils, like lemon and orange, invigorate the body and mind and uplift your mood. Studies have found that lemon essential oil possesses anxiolytic and antidepressant-like properties. You can diffuse essential oils or apply them topically with a carrier oil.
5. Consider Antidepressants
If other strategies do not relieve your symptoms, an antidepressant drug may be useful to reduce and eliminate symptoms. Discuss your symptoms thoroughly with your family doctor and/or mental health professional.
6. Talk with a Mental Health Professional
Therapy sessions can help you change your mindset and give you the tools to manage stress and cope with seasonal affective disorder. Combining talk therapy with other strategies can help you to tackle SAD so that you can get back to enjoying your life.
At Autumn Leaf Counseling, we’re here for you. While seasons changing is inevitable, you don’t have to suffer. Whether you are local to Hinsdale or the general Chicago area contact us today to learn more about how we can help.
As a therapist, Jorie Miklos enjoys helping people reach a level of personal happiness and satisfaction that they didn’t think was possible.
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