By Niku Sedarat
The winter season is often associated with joy, filled with holidays, snow, and community. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, 10-20% of individuals in America experience a mild case of the "winter blues." If you tend to feel down during the winter seasons, know that you are not alone. Commonly known as seasonal depression or winter blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depressive disorder associated with seasonal patterns. More commonly than not, these patterns occur in late fall and early winter, leading to mood changes and symptoms of depression.
People who experience seasonal affective disorder during the winter may encounter symptoms like increased sadness and anxiety, weight gain, feelings of hopelessness and agitation, difficulty focusing, oversleeping, a loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, and increased thoughts of suicide.
While anyone can experience seasonal affective disorder, those with another mood disorder or living in less sunny, more cloudy regions may be at greater risk. Currently, the causes of seasonal depression remain unknown; however, there are factors that may play a role.
A lack of sunlight during winter could play a large role due to the deficiency of vitamin D it causes. Vitamin D is imperative to our mood as it boosts serotonin levels. When we don't get enough exposure to sunlight, our vitamin D and serotonin levels drop, leading to mood changes. This lack of sunlight may also affect melatonin—a neurohormone that plays a role in sleep patterns. Often, this causes symptoms of oversleeping and sluggishness.
Our bodies also have an internal "biological clock," also known as our circadian rhythm, associated with regulating sleep, mood, and hormones. Due to a decrease in sunlight, our biological clocks often make it difficult to maintain a daily routine adjusted to shifts in daytime.
Our thoughts can also play a significant role in the onset of seasonal affective disorder. When we have negative thoughts, anxiety, and stress about winter, there is an increased risk of developing seasonal depression. High school and college students who experience final exams or other stressful events may be at greater risk of this.
While seasonal depression is undoubtedly serious, there are various treatments that can help alleviate symptoms and provide relief. First and foremost, cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, is a form of therapy that helps combat some of the negative thoughts associated with seasonal depression. According to the Cleveland Clinic, CBT has shown to produce the longest-lasting outcomes of any treatment approach.
Due to the significant role of sunlight, vitamin D, and serotonin levels in seasonal depression, some individuals may benefit from light therapy. Light therapy works by creating a bright, artificial light that aims to replace the lack of sunlight during the winter. This can also help regulate the body's biological clock, further enhancing mood and sleep quality. While light therapy can be helpful, it is equally important to make an effort to spend time outdoors during the winter, aiming to soak up all the sunlight that you can get.
Additionally, antidepressant medication may potentially be helpful for some people with seasonal depression. Remember—consult a doctor or mental health professional if you think this could be a viable option for you. There is no shame in taking medication! Furthermore, a vitamin D supplement could also be an option to bring up with a doctor, as this can help combat some of those drops in vitamin D due to lack of sunlight.
If you are experiencing seasonal depression, remember that you are not alone, and these feelings will pass. In the meantime, it is helpful to maintain a regular daily schedule, ensuring that you regularly get outside, exercise, eat balanced meals, and spend time with loved ones. While these daily habits are not a "cure," they are certainly helpful in establishing control and regularity in our daily lives. If your symptoms are feeling overwhelming or distressing, do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. You’ve got this!