Winter is a beautiful time of year. But for some, changes in the seasons can be really hard to navigate. Especially for those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
If the season has you feeling down, is affecting your sleep or draining your energy, you are absolutely not alone.
Know that you deserve to feel well. And you also deserve to be able to reach out for help when you need it.
But how can we better support our mental health through SAD? What steps can we take to work towards feeling better?
Let’s talk about it! Because there are definitely things that you can do to help. Here’s everything you need to know about SAD, including 5 powerful ways to cope.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is no laughing matter. 4 to 6 percent of people may experience winter depression. And another 10 to 20 percent might develop a mild case of SAD. Which ultimately has a serious effect on your mental and physical well-being. (source)
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that creeps up on some of us when the seasons change. Most people who experience SAD start to notice their symptoms in the fall. And they tend to stick around or even worsen throughout the winter. But it’s absolutely possible to experience SAD during the spring and summer months instead. (source)
This isn’t something we should brush off either. While SAD’s nickname, winter blues, might make it seem like it isn’t a big deal, SAD is real and should be taken seriously. It can be a very difficult thing to experience.
What are the symptoms of SAD? (source)
- Feelings of depression and/or hopelessness
- Apathy towards activities you typically enjoy
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty focusing
- Suicidal thoughts
Fall/Winter Specific Symptoms
- Oversleeping, tiredness and reduced energy
- Changes in appetite, especially cravings for high carb foods
- Weight gain
Spring/Summer Specific Symptoms
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
- Anxiety or irritability
Seasonal Affective Disorder should be taken seriously. It can have a massive effect on our well-being. And if you are experiencing SAD, it’s so important that you know that this is not uncommon, you aren’t alone and there are steps that you can take to help. Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about it.
What Causes SAD
Unfortunately, doctors aren’t 100% sure about what specifically causes SAD. But there are a few factors that play a role. (source)
1. Your biological clock (circadian rhythm) is affected by the change of season
There’s a lot less sunlight hanging around in the fall and winter. And we tend to spend less time in it. This can leave our biological clock out of whack and lead to feelings of depression and ultimately SAD.
2. Reduced serotonin levels
Serotonin, a nifty neurotransmitter that affects your mood, sleep and appetite, tends to drop when we spend less time in the sunlight. Lower serotonin levels might trigger depression and other symptoms of SAD.
3. Increased Melatonin levels
Melatonin has a little nickname – the hormone of darkness. I know that sounds creepy, but don’t worry, it’s not a bad omen. It just tends to come out when you’re in the dark.
Like serotonin, melatonin plays a role in sleep, mood and appetite. They actually have an affect on each other (serotonin is the precursor to melatonin. But we won’t dive deeper into that one here. Just nerding out a little ;))
Too much of it and you might find yourself feeling sluggish, tired and even down. The lack of sunlight in the colder months can push us in this direction, which may ultimately lead to SAD.
5 Powerful Ways To Cope With SAD
Now that we know what SAD is, let’s look at some simple self-care activities that can help.
1. Make Things Brighter
We might get less time in the sun, but that doesn’t mean that we have to spend more time in the dark. Opening your curtains, sitting closer to the window and making things brighter can really help. It might seem simple, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful!
Light therapy is an option.
In fact, you can even get light therapy boxes, which create a bright light and mimic the sunshine.
Sounds a little bonkers right? Here’s what the smarties at Harvard have to say in their article about light therapy:
“If lack of sunlight causes or contributes to Seasonal Affective Disorder, then getting more light may reverse it. Bright light works by stimulating cells in the retina that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that helps control circadian rhythms. Activating the hypothalamus at a certain time every day can restore a normal circadian rhythm and thus banish seasonal symptoms.” (source)
Basically, we’re putting our biological clock back in whack (that’s the reverse of “out of whack” right?)
How does light therapy work?
Basically, when you indulge in light therapy, you sit or work near a special light box for at least 30 minutes a day. The earlier in the day the better (since we want to jump start our day feeling good!)
Light therapy can be as effective as antidepressant medications for the treatment of SAD. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right choice for everyone. It’s really important that you discuss this with your doctor before you invest in a light box. (source)
You can also simulate dawn!
Dawn simulators are devices that, you guessed it, simulate dawn. Basically they make it so that the lights in your bedroom gradually brighten over a pre-set period of time.
Unlike light therapy, you don’t need to be awake throughout the entire process. Instead, you get to wake up slowly to something that feels a bit more like a warm, lazy sunrise.
Dawn simulators can make it easier to get out of bed in the morning. And this study showed that it can also work as an anti-depressant too. Yahoo!
2. Choose Mood Boosting Foods
Maybe this sounds a little strange, but hear me out! Your food can affect your mood. And if you’re experiencing SAD and looking for tools that can help, your diet (along with your doctor and a ton of self-care) can be a great tool.
Remember how we discussed the importance of Serotonin and how it can play a role in SAD? What if I told you that up to 95% of your serotonin is made in that gorgeous gut of yours? Woah, right? (source)
But wait, it gets cooler!
Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with about a hundred million nerve cells. That’s a ton of nerves! Together they make up the Enteric Nervous System (you may have also heard it by it’s other name – “The Second Brain.”) This system is why we have “a gut feeling” about things. It’s pretty powerful!
The Enteric Nervous System calls the shots and rules over the functions of your digestive tract. But it also communicates with our nervous system’s main powerhouse, the Central Nervous System.
The function of these neurons and the production of the ever-important neurotransmitter serotonin have a serious effect on your mood. And food can affect their function. Boom! It all comes together. (source)
Want an example? Let’s take a look at one of my favourite (and often forgotten) food groups – fermented foods:
When we eat fermented foods we provide our digestive tract with gut healthy bacteria, supporting our microbiome. And that gut microbiome absolutely effects your neurons and serotonin production.
In fact, studies have shown that people who take probiotics (which, like fermented foods, give you a boost in good gut bacteria) have lower levels of anxiety, better mental outlook and a lower perception of stress. So cool! (source)
They also help you to better absorb your food. Which means that any other mood boosting foods have a better chance of helping you out!
On top of that, studies that compare traditional diets (like the Mediterranean diet) to the Standard American Diet have found that those who eat a healthier Traditional diet have a 25 to 35 percent lower rick of developing depression. (source)
Food matters friends!
Need some suggestions? Load up on goodies like:
- Fermented Foods (Like Coconut Milk Kefir, Miso, Kombucha, Sauerkraut, etc.)
- Brazil Nuts
- Dark Chocolate
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Flax Seeds
The lovely Kris Carr has a fantastic article featuring 7 Mood-Boosting Foods to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder if you’d like to learn more.
3. Don’t Forget to Exercise
Maybe this one seems like a total bummer. I know that when we are tired and unmotivated, working out isn’t exactly an exciting idea. But the good news is that is doesn’t have to be complicated!
We don’t have to become gym junkies to reap the rewards of exercise. Even just going for a walk can help you here.
Here’s why exercise helps:
Regular exercise changes your brain! Specifically the parts that regulate stress and anxiety. And it’s been shown to boost your mood and reduce stress (source). Sounds great, eh?
One of the ways it does this goodness is by boosting the production of feel good endorphins, which makes us feel more positive. And it also reduce pain perception! Who could ask for more? (source)
Oh, but the goodness continues!
Exercise also ups your brain’s sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine, two hormones that help to relieve depression. And we already know that serotonin plays a big role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. So we are cooking with fire here baby! (source)
Super bonus if you work out under bright lights or outside during the day!
This study found that when you exercise under bright light you get a boost in your general mental health and see an improvement in symptoms of depression. Holla!
4. Spend Time Outside
This one can be hard, especially since SAD mostly tends to pop up during the colder months. But bundling up and spending some time in the great outdoors can be a huge help! (source)
Not only does spending time outside reduce symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can also boost your mood, encourages creativity and increases concentration. And you can even combine it with your work out.
5. Make Time for Stress Relieving Activities
Making sure that you’re taking the time to be extra kind and gentle with yourself is so important. Especially when you’re experiencing something like SAD.
Activities that focus on the Mind-Body connection, like yoga, meditation or music therapy can be a huge help!
Meditation alone has some amazing health benefits like:
- Reduced anxiety and stress
- Improved focus and concentration
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased empathy and compassion
But making time for any activities that you find relaxing and soothing is a total win.
Need a little help? Here are 6 Fantastic Tips On How to Reduce Stress from Psychiatrists and Mental Health Professionals. They know where the stress relief is at!
When To Get Help
Everyone feels down sometimes. It’s totally normal. And you are by no means strange for experiencing negative emotions! It’s part of the human experience; it’s ok not to be ok.
But if you find yourself feeling down for a prolonged period of time, feel like you’ve lost your motivation or no longer enjoy things you typically adore, talk to your doctor and/or counselor.
This is especially important if your symptoms affect your sleep or appetite or you find yourself experiencing hopelessness or suicidal thoughts. You deserve to feel better! And seeking help is a huge part of that. In fact, it’s a pretty awesome form of self-care!
If you or someone you know are in a crisis or may be in danger please seek immediate help. Here is a link to resources that can provide help right away.
If you find yourself struggling with SAD, you aren’t alone! This is a common issue that many people deal with. You are not alone!
Know that there are ways to cope and people who can help. Don’t hesitate to reach out for extra help if you need it or to simply check in with your doctor and/or therapist while you work through this. You’re doing awesome. Things will get better!
Online therapy is an option
BetterHelp is an awesome place for anyone who wants to speak to a counselor online. They’ll match you to the right therapist for your personal needs. Their services are affordable and private and their psychiatrist and therapists are licensed, trained, experienced and accredited. A great place to get the support you need!
Lastly, indulge in all the self-care activities you need to reduce stress and feel more relaxed. You deserve to have the time to take care of you. Self-care is important! It’s ok to put yourself first, especially when you’re working through something difficult.
Do you or someone you know struggle with SAD? What tips would you add to this list of coping strategies? Share your goodness with me in the comments below.
Health and love,
Thought of the day: It’s absolutely ok not to be ok. And, even better, reaching out for help is amazing! It’s a beautiful form of self-care <3.
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