For anyone who never had a snow day as a kid, or has never bought a parka, or never tried to fill up your car without gloves in -20 degree wind chill--let me tell you about Wisconsin winters! And, why you should pay extra attention to your mental health in the winter months.. by watching out for SAD.
Between late November and March, you can expect some serious snow and cold in many parts of the US, Wisconsin included. Like, 12-inches-at-a-time type snow. Going out to shovel the driveway before work, trekking slush from your boots all over the house, leaving 5 minutes early to wipe last night’s snow off your car--yes it’s a pain, but you get used to it!
The tougher part for me is the cold, and the dark, because my mood thrives on outdoor time. Having multiple weeks where it’s literally too freezing--even dangerous--to walk your dog (ever hear the term polar vortex? We sure do!), and 3-4 months of the year where it’s dark as you leave for work and even darker by the time you’re done...it can be a drag, even for a tough born-and-raised-in-Wisco girl like me!
Now you add the social isolation brought by COVID, and the fact that safe outdoor social activity isn't available anymore, and this winter has been especially emotionally draining--and I know many others are in much more difficult situations than I am.
This is why it’s important to know about Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka, SAD). You might think you’re just “in a bad mood all the time because it's winter” , but the changing of the seasons can have very real health implications--both physical and mental--and lead to more serious symptoms of depression.
While I wouldn’t necessarily diagnose myself with SAD, I absolutely feel a downshift in mood and energy in the winter compared to the summer. Having a harder time getting out of bed, less energy or motivation to do daily activities, getting agitated and stressed more easily (especially at work!)--I notice all of these things in the winter months, and even in the fall when I anxiously think about my outdoor time and daylight shrinking. And in 2020, I was especially anxious about the isolated days the upcoming winter + COVID would bring.
So I made some simple lifestyle changes last December that have helped boost my winter spirits--you’ll see them in the Tips section below!
After reading about this, if you think you have SAD (or other types of major depression), or if you’re experiencing milder forms of depressed mood, please know you’re not alone--in fact, between 4-6% of Americans suffer from SAD and an additional 10-20% likely experience more mild forms--and that there are resources ready to help you find a better mental state (see some at the end of the post).
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that impacts people during certain seasons of the year--meaning, the depressive symptoms typically occur during the same 4-5 month period each year, and then are slightly or fully alleviated when the season changes again.
It’s most common to see SAD symptoms start during late fall/early winter, and get better during the spring/summer. There are people, however, who report symptoms beginning in the spring and summer months too.
It’s pretty common to feel a downshift in your general mood or energy as the days grow shorter and colder--or a LOT colder, depending on where you live! I definitely notice these changes in myself. While all seasonal mood changes are valid and should be recognized (aka, give yourself a break if you're not motivated to do much on cold winter nights, or get out of bed as early as you do in the summer), it’s the more severe signs of seasonally-onset depression that health care professionals look for when diagnosing SAD.
What are the common symptoms of SAD?
As SAD is a type of recurrent depression, the same symptoms of other types of major depression also apply to SAD. But, just like other forms of depression, the symptoms can vary from person to person.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression can include:
Feeling down, bummed out, or unhappy very consistently--every day or nearly every day, and throughout the day
Loss of interest in activities you typically enjoy
Changes in weight or appetite
Very low energy or fatigue
Difficulty focusing or concentrating
Feeling hopeless, worthless, or dispirited
Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep
Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Additional symptoms that could signify SAD specifically (which differ a bit based on whether it’s winter-onset or summer-onset) include:
Sleeping too much (winter) or trouble sleeping (summer)
Social isolation (winter)
Restlessness, agitation, and/or anxiety (summer)
Loss of appetite resulting in weight loss (summer)
Overeating (particularly carb-heavy foods) and gaining weight (winter)
Episodes of violent behavior (summer)
Again, how SAD is felt may differ for every person--you may have a few of these symptoms or many, and they can range from mild and manageable to severe and life-impacting.
Before we jump into tips for combating them, however, it’s important to understand what could be causing them.
What causes SAD, and who is most susceptible to it?
While “seasonal” affective disorder obviously links this recurrent depression to certain seasons, the exact causes of SAD are largely unknown. But some studies point to the following factors as possible triggers for SAD symptoms:
Reduction of serotonin - Serotonin is a chemical released by your brain that helps regulate your mood. Sunlight plays a role in maintaining stable serotonin levels--less sunlight in the winter leads to less serotonin, possibly impacting mood.
Vitamin D deficiency - Vitamin D helps boost serotonin, and exposure to sunlight boosts the body’s production of VD! If you don’t make up for lost VD with your diet, less winter sunlight can lead to less serotonin, leading to--you got it--poor mood!
Increase of melatonin - Melatonin is a key hormone in regulating when your body sleeps and wakes. A change in season can throw off the body’s melatonin levels, and too much melatonin can increase sleepiness. Some studies have found that people suffering from SAD produce higher-than-average melatonin.
Disruption of circadian rhythm--aka, your body’s natural, internal clock that helps regulate biological functioning. Shorter days and less sunlight can throw off your circadian rhythm and lead to feelings of depression. Changes in serotonin and melatonin levels can disrupt this rhythm as well--all leaving the body unable to naturally adjust to changes in the day’s length and light. What does that lead to? Sleep, mood, and behavior impacts.
While the causes of SAD aren’t well understood, data points to certain populations being more susceptible. According to Mayo Clinic, SAD is diagnosed more frequently in women and younger adults. You also may be at greater risk for SAD if you have other forms of major depression or bipolar disorder (seasonal depression may increase alongside these conditions), or if you live farther north or south of the equator (greater changes in daylight and temps!).
Regardless of severity, it can be a struggle to live with depressive symptoms--and who wants to wait miserably for 4-6 months in the hopes they clear up next season--so let’s talk about a few research-backed tips for treating (or at least alleviating) SAD!
But before we do, if you have any of the above symptoms and they’re impacting your daily life and/or thoughts of yourself, please talk to your doctor or mental health professional. Doing so can help make sure there is no other health condition causing the depressive symptoms. Plus, every body is different, with different physical and mental needs, and it’s important to review your options with a health professional to determine the best plan for you.
3 At-Home Tips for combating SAD symptoms
While it's hard to completely beat the winter blues, here’s a few easy tips that have helped me keep my mood high this winter:
1.) Vitamin D
Since I couldn’t rely on as much Vitamin D from sunlight (and I don’t consumer much milk, fatty fish, or other foods with VD), I picked a daily multivitamin that had more VD (1,000 IU, or 125% of the daily recommended amount, in fact) and made sure to take it daily.
Use this fact sheet to see some common sources of VD and how much is recommended for you--for most healthy adults, the minimum recommended daily dose is 600 IU (or 15 mcg) and maximum is 4,000 IU (or 100 mcg) per day.
2.) Make the most of your windows!
In November, I rearranged my home desk space to face our large bedroom window. And I started forcing myself to open up the blinds completely--not just twist them partially open. It was weird at first because I live in a tight apartment complex and would look almost directly into my neighbor’s window, but the change in workspace brightness and my mood has been remarkable!
With the sun coming up at 7am and going down between 4-5pm (before I’m done with work), my only chance for sunlight had been a quick (and cold!) walk. Spending more of my daily time and activity in the natural light has been an easy way to feel like I’m getting more “daytime” even on the short days, and it’s done wonders for my mental state. Reminder though that exposing yourself to sunlight through windows doesn’t produce VD like regular sunlight.
3.) Focus on a well-balanced diet
Does a veggie-laden salad sound as delicious on a cold, dark winter night? No, definitely not. But giving into desires to eat only those warm, carb-heavy comfort dishes can leave you feeling bogged down. Try to keep some variety in your meal plan, both to make sure you’re giving your body the nutrients it needs to feel alert and energized and to help dark weeknights feel less mundane!
Common SAD Treatments Health Professionals May Recommend
Here’s some ways health professionals may recommend preventing and/or treating SAD (from Psychiatry.org), but again, consult your health professional to determine what might work best for you:
Light therapy - this is usually recommended for winter-onset SAD, and typically involves sitting in front of a lit-up box for 20+ minutes each morning during the problematic months. Light therapy boxes give off a bright light while filtering out all the harmful UV, giving the body some of the benefits it misses with reduced daylight. Most diagnosed with SAD see at least slight improvements within the first two weeks of light therapy. Doctors may also recommend increasing your exposure to sunlight (which isn't always easy for us Midwesterners!), but any way you can squeeze in some outside time (or expose yourself to more natural light like I mentioned above) can help alleviate season-related mood decreases.
Talk therapy - this includes talking through the problems and concerns (with a professional) that are upsetting you to relieve emotional distress. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on modifying negative ways of thinking and responding to them more effectively, can be particularly effective for SAD.
Antidepressants - certain antidepressants help regulate serotonin activity, which can help with SAD symptoms.
General health - as with many health conditions, the best prevention and treatment is to maintain a healthy lifestyle! Try to be active regularly, eat a well-balanced diet, get enough sleep, and stay connected with family and friends.
Resources for additional help + information
SAMHSA’s National Helpline - the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is a free, confidential help-line available 24/7/365 for people struggling with mental and/or substance abuse disorders. The service providers free publications and information, as well as referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and other helpful orgs. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also click here to use their online treatment locator.
If you’re not sure what type of professional to see, start with this great list from Mayo Clinic that outlines different types of mental health specialists and tips for how to find a specialist based on your situation (health insurance, location, associations for resources, etc.)
Want professional help but don’t have insurance? This list of resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) includes many low-cost mental health treatment options, with locators to find online or in-person treatment options near you.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - If you feel severe depression or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or suicide, please tell someone - help is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The help line provides free and confidential support in crisis situations, and can provide resources for you or your loved ones.
Have you ever noticed a change in your mood or mental state that could be SAD? If so, what did you feel? What did you do to help yourself feel better? I'd love any other tips and tricks, because as much as I LOVE my beautiful home state of Wisconsin, the winter can sure feel long! XOXO