7 Things to Help Avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder
Winter blues, another name for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that has a seasonal pattern which can start in fall and last until spring. As the days get shorter and colder, the lack of sunlight can leave you feeling sad, low energy or you may experience changes in sleep and eating habits (usually wanting to sleep and eat more) and the desire to isolate.
SAD is more than just “winter blues." The symptoms can be distressing, overwhelming and can interfere with daily function. SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter.
Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:
- Feeling of sadness or depressed mood.
- Marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed.
- Changes in appetite - usually eating more, craving carbohydrates.
- Change in sleep - usually sleeping too much.
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours.
- Increase in restless activity (such as hand-wringing or pacing), or slowed movements and speech.
- Feeling worthless or guilty.
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions.
- Thoughts of death or suicide; attempts at suicide.
SAD can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including light therapy, antidepressant medication, talk therapy or some combination of these. While symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment.
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help prevent this disorder, beginning with certain lifestyle changes. There are seven different aspects of well-being, and you can focus on making changes in each during the seven months of fall and winter:
- Physical – Maintaining your level of exercise and a healthy balanced diet are great ways to elevate your mood and energy levels throughout the winter months. It is also important to regulate your sleep patterns; avoid sleeping during the day and avoid overindulging in caffeine and alcohol. Smile! Your smile can lift your mood as well as the mood of others.
- Emotional – Keep a gratitude journal. It’s easy to get sucked into all the parts of the day that aren’t perfect. Instead, make a point to write down what you’re grateful for each day.
- Social – Make an effort to keep socializing. The cold can make us feel like staying home, but going out and maintaining relationships can boost your spirits. Older adults are more vulnerable to isolation since they are less likely to go out in bad weather. Consider shoveling an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk or offering to take them to the grocery store to help them stay social.
- Intellectual – Stop rationalizing staying home! We can all think of reasons why we shouldn’t go out or get something done, but creating and sticking to a schedule can help you avoid isolation and dwelling on things that make you feel down.
- Spiritual – Be mindful of this moment. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of winter, embrace the season and find things you like about it.
- Environmental– Get outside! Even if it’s only for a few minutes, the fresh air and sunshine can help you feel refreshed. Light bulbs that emit a certain wavelength that mimic the vitamin D in sunlight can also be helpful to use periodically.
- Vocational – Focus on the positive and try to manage your stress. Do something that relaxes you, like reading a book, taking a bath or getting a massage.
If you have been experiencing signs of seasonal affective disorder for more than two weeks and lifestyle changes aren’t helping to alleviate the symptoms, it may be time to talk to your doctor or contact a behavioral health specialist. Depression is a serious condition and the longer treatment is delayed, the harder the recovery.
About the Author
Barbara “B” Akins is a registered nurse and staff educator at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital.