Seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, is marked by decreased mood and feelings of sadness specifically around certain periods of the year. It’s most common during winter time in temperate climates, when the available daylight per day is at its shortest, and nights last much longer. In many people, this causes a shift in the production of melatonin, a brain chemical responsible for making us sleepy and demotivated. In turn, people might also see a downturn in the release of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to depression and anxiety.
Melatonin is commonly released throughout the day, and spikes just before we go to bed. A few things – including caffeine and daylight – block the production and effects of melatonin. During winter time, our moods tend to plummet and the motivation to get things done can drop. Couple this with changes in diet around the holidays and the emotional stress that comes along with preparing for the holidays, going through several hefty expenditures and ending up with several extra pounds on the scale, and it’s common that many people find themselves feeling more depressed and less active throughout the winter months before, during, and after the holidays – in spite of the cheer and joy that such festivities are known to bring.
Another theory is that people experiencing seasonal affective disorder are going through the same process identified in workers with frequent and stressful changes in work shifts, followed by constant upsets to the circadian rhythm. Our circadian rhythm is our internal clock, responsible for helping us regulate motivation, energy expenditure and certain activities throughout the day. A person with a functioning and normal circadian rhythm will generally wake up around the same time each day, experience the same energy levels throughout the day, and get tired and eventually fall asleep around the same time each day. Things that can upset a person’s circadian rhythm include working a night shift, changing eating habits, consuming too much caffeine, suffering from insomnia, and the change in seasons (as it alters the amount of daylight available throughout the day).
Overcoming seasonal depression begins with properly diagnosing it. Previously considered a subtype of other disorders, seasonal affective disorder has since been properly identified as a depressive disorder or mood disorder, specifically characterized by feelings of depression tied to the change in seasons. This is significant, because someone experiencing depression all year round is not going to receive the same benefits associated with treatment properly applied to seasonal depression.
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
While the exact cause of SAD is not completely understood, treatments that have been found to be successful in the treatment of SAD include light therapy, antidepressant medication, therapy, herbal supplements, and a series of lifestyle changes and home remedies.
If you feel you’ve been struggling with SAD, speak to a psychiatrist for an official diagnosis, and recommended treatment. Light therapy can be effective for people who are depressed because they’re missing that extra few hours of sunlight. Light boxes simply expose the body to outdoor light and are generally used right after waking up. This can help you wake up faster and alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD. Because it’s so effective, light therapy has become one of the most common ways to help treat SAD. But it isn’t always effective on its own.
Medication is still used for cases of SAD, especially if symptoms persist and are severe enough to warrant the use of antidepressants. Rather than use them full-time, a psychiatrist may recommend that you only begin using them daily once the seasons begin to change, and throughout winter.
Other non-invasive medical options include non-invasive neuromodulation, such as through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Used primarily for cases of depression where medication doesn’t work, as well as cases of OCD, TMS targets different portions of the brain responsible for mood regulation (through neurotransmission, or the endocrine system).
Therapy can also be effective. A therapist may be able to help you identify ways to reduce your stress and improve your mood throughout the holidays and the rest of the winter season, as well as help give you techniques for relaxation, calming down, and feeling better when you’re on your own at home and begin to think negatively. Not only can therapists make recommendations for other treatments and forms of therapy, but they can help you learn to manage your own thoughts over time and identify negative thinking.
Alternative remedies and complementary medicine are also options frequently employed in the treatment of SAD. Herbal remedies are generally not recommended, because these are not regulated by the FDA and can potentially interact with other medications. For example, antidepressants should not be taken with St. John’s Wort, a popular herbal supplement against depression. If you plan to take anything to help with your SAD, be sure to ask your doctor first, and see if you can find a way to make use of your medication and utilize herbal supplements, or switch to a different more effective medicine.
Home Changes for SAD
Treatments are one side of the coin – to ward off the winter blues, you can also combine recommended therapies with lifestyle changes and home remedies. A few things to consider are:
- Taking a regular walk (even in the cold – use appropriate protection)
- Being more mindful of your sleeping routine
- Exercise more frequently
- Don’t stress over the holidays as much
These changes can all help, depending on the severity of the depressive symptoms. Taking a walk outside every few days and working out during the winter months can do a lot to boost your mood, but if you’re showing signs of suicidal ideation and frequent surges of hopelessness, then more intensive treatment will be necessary.
It’s important to coordinate with a mental healthcare professional while you’re going through seasonal affective disorder. It can take some time for a course of treatment to take effect, so be sure to speak to the doctor about how long you should wait before trying something else.