For some people, the winter months are a welcomed time of year associated with festive holidays, snow days and family gatherings. But for others, this time of year might not be the season of Yuletide cheer. While mood changes, low energy and an increased appetite may just be a result of the cold weather, the symptoms could also be signs of a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the “Winter Blues.”
An estimated 10 to 20 percent of people experience mild SAD. It can impact one’s ability to function and reoccurs yearly. Winter-onset SAD typically begins in the late fall or winter, and doesn’t go away until the spring time or early summer. The reduced level of sunlight during this time, in addition to decreased serotonin levels, are believed to be major contributors. Financial stress, an unhealthy diet, decreased exercise, reduced social interaction and other mental health issues can also play a role. In any case, a person experiencing SAD may develop symptoms such as low energy, sadness, increased agitation, a lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed, difficulties concentrating, changes in sleeping patterns, increased appetite (especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates), and feelings of worthlessness.
10 Ways to Feel Better During the Winter Months
- Exercise – dedicating 30 minutes a day to light exercise, such as housework or yoga, can help boost the release of serotonin.
- Go Outside – taking a quick walk around the block with the dog or opening the curtains can provide a much needed dose of sunlight and Vitamin D.
- Eat a Serotonin-Boosting Diet – foods such as eggs, nuts, bananas and salmon, contain an amino acid called tryptophan, a critical building block for natural serotonin production.
- Wear Bright Colors – research shows that warm and bright colors are tied to feelings of happiness.
- Complete a Project– finishing a project around the house can make you feel accomplished, even if it is as simple as making the bed in the morning.
- Embrace the Cold – people living near the arctic light candles and fires, drink warm beverages and snuggle under blankets to relax.
- Take a Vacation – a mid-winter trip to a warm, sunny location may provide the boost needed to get through the rest of the cold months.
- Engage in Social Activities – whether solo or with a friend, getting out of the house to see a movie, go bowling or volunteer will help prevent isolation.
- Take a Class – pass the time by picking up a hobby or learning something new; as the old saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun!”
- Join a Book Club – studies have found that reading can make people happier by enhancing ‘theory of mind’ and reducing stress.
Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression Treatments
These tips can help those experiencing mild symptoms of SAD. However, treatment may be needed if SAD becomes serious, or if the symptoms persist beyond a few days at a time, escalate, or negatively impact the following areas:
- Ability to perform at work or school
- Relationships with family or friends
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Treatments for someone experiencing SAD or other forms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) may include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Behavioral Activation (BA) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT). Another common treatment for SAD is light therapy, where the individual purchases a special light box and they sit under the light each day. The light mimics the sunlight and can cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is also an effective treatment for people experiencing extreme mood dysregulation or suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors.
Sparlin Mental Health, formerly St. Louis Center for Family Development, provides professional mental health services and evidence-based treatments for varying degrees of depression. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, contact us today to schedule an assessment with a clinician.