As the leaves fall and the temperatures drop, a familiar feeling of winter sadness waits around the corner for many. For some, this “winter sadness” might be something a little more serious.
Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a condition that brings a drop in mood during specific months of the year. More commonly affecting people in the fall and winter months, SAD is something to be aware of this Christmas season as exams quickly approach.
SAD has symptoms parallel with that of normal depression, simply with a seasonal pattern. Julie Kingma, Redeemer’s Nurse Practitioner, says, “For a person who doesn’t have an underlying depression disorder but just thinks they have a Seasonal Affective Disorder…they’d be more tired; their mood would be lower; they’d be less interested in things that normally bring them joy or happiness; they’d probably eat either more or less. The biggest thing is that people feel that their mood is lower and it comes with the onset of decreased sun hours.”
In order to be diagnosed with SAD, one must have these symptoms during a specific season for two or more years consecutively. It can be difficult for health care professionals to diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder because of the shared symptoms it has with other mental health conditions, but the biggest difference is that SAD affects someone consistently during a specific time of year.
Though there’s still debate on what exactly causes SAD, many professionals attribute the winter depression to a lack of sunlight. According to Kingma, “The understanding with Seasonal Affective Disorder is that light is taken in through our eyes and sent to our brain and affects our serotonin levels. So, when there’s a decrease in sunlight it affects our serotonin…for some people that can lead them into this depressive time.”
Because of the influence sunlight has on people’s serotonin levels, a common treatment for persons with SAD is light therapy.
Kingma recommends getting light within the first hour of waking up, even if that means not allowing oneself to sleep past noon everyday. When asked what she would recommend to people struggling this season, Kingma suggests personal routines.
“That’s a really hard thing when you’re in university in particular,” she says, “but setting routines is really good for you for the rhythm of your body and your mind. So sleeping, trying to get up at the same time everyday and going to bed at the same time everyday [is good]. Even if you feel like sleeping until one in the afternoon, get up.”
Generally, practicing self care and making sure the body gets an opportunity to feel sunlight each day is key to preventing the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Eating, sleeping, and staying active are key ways to treat any mental illness, SAD included. An additional quick-fix way to cope with the decreased sunlight is taking a Vitamin D supplement.
Kingma says, “Vitamin D is an easy, cheap supplement to purchase. You would take 1000-2000 IU a day normally, but with seasonal affective disorder it’d be more around 3000-5000 IU.” Maybe this means adding Vitamin D to your daily vitamins or increasing the number of capsules you take each day in order to fight the potential effects of seasonal depression.
Like any other mental health condition, it’s important to talk to your health care provider if you think you’re experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder. If symptoms seem more severe than what a routine or extra sunlight can fix, there are other resources to treat SAD through healthcare providers.
Light therapy, a common form of treatment, is an easy and efficient way to cope with the symptoms. Using a light box or light lamp under specific guidelines can be a secondary way of the body absorbing light.
On the topic of light boxes, Kingma says, “We actually bought one and are lending it out to students…there’s some parameters on how to do that, so I do recommend people talk to their healthcare provider.” Counseling and medication are also all available to those who have a SAD diagnosis and need some extra help.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a very real condition that can impact people’s day-to-day life drastically, but it doesn’t mean this Christmas season has to suck. Practicing self care, setting a routine, and making sure your body gets to see the sun everyday are all great ways to keep your mood high this season.
Additionally, if you think you’re experiencing the symptoms of SAD, talk to your healthcare provider and see what any next steps are for making the winter blues more manageable.