Is It the Winter Blues — Or Something Else?
For millions of Americans, a change in the weather can trigger seasonal affective disorder — a serious condition you don’t want to overlook.
There’s a surprising connection between the weather and your brain health, AKA your mental, emotional and behavioral wellbeing. Starting in November, when the temperature drops and the days get shorter — your body takes note.
This can trigger changes to your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates your sleep schedule and hormone production. As a result, you might experience what psychologists call seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
When It’s More Than the Winter Blues
We all have moments when we don’t feel our best, but it’s important to recognize when your mood, emotions or behavior start to impact other parts of your life.
Maybe you’re sleeping less and can’t concentrate at work. Or maybe you suddenly butt heads with family and friends. No matter what that change is, it’s good to talk about your experience with someone who can help you explore treatment options.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that usually occurs in the fall and winter and subsides as the days get longer and the temperature rises. Its side-effects include:
- Feeling sad or down, some or most of the time
- Feeling constantly tired or “zapped”
- Weight gain
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Thoughts of self-harm
According to the Mayo Clinic, Women and young adults are most likely to be diagnosed with SAD, but anyone can be impacted.1 Other risk factors include having major depression, bipolar disorder or low levels of vitamin D. Iowans are in general are prone to SAD, since we have fewer chances to soak up the sun in the long winter months.
Why Treating SAD Matters
For some people, the symptoms of SAD go away as the weather improves — but that’s not always the case, and it’s important to seek treatment right away. Left unaddressed, SAD can spiral into a more serious depression that impacts your anxiety levels, productivity and social life in the long-term. At this stage, SAD can be harder to treat and take longer to resolve.
The physical symptoms of SAD can also put you in real danger. Constant fatigue and sleepiness can lead to a car wreck.2 And changes to your appetite can lead to weigh gain or loss, both of which can have consequences to your health.
Treatment for SAD: Your Options
Seasonal affective disorder can make it hard to enjoy life to the fullest. But there’s good news — you have plenty of treatment options.
For some people, treatment means working with a mental health professional to build coping skills and talk about how you’re doing — a process known as psychotherapy. In some cases, medications like antidepressants can help manage symptoms.
Lifestyle changes also help — especially when used in combination with therapy, medication or a mix of both. These include:
- Regular exercise, especially jogging, running and other outdoor activities
- Minimizing processed foods and eating nutrient-rich veggies, proteins and whole grains instead
- Meditation and other stress-reduction techniques
- Spending more time outside
Light therapy offers another popular and promising treatment for SAD. This involves exposing yourself to bright light for a set amount of time each day. No matter what options appeal to you, consult with a doctor or mental health professional who can help you safely determine the best course of treatment.
You Don’t Have to “Tough It Out” — Help Is Waiting
Getting help at the first sign of seasonal affective disorder is your best bet to limit the effects it has on your life and get back to feeling like your normal self.
If you don’t know where to turn for help, your primary care doctor can point you in the right direction. You can also use our Find a Provider Tool to find a mental health professional close to home, as well as other helpful resources like our Virtual Calming Room, where you’ll find activities to help you manage stress.
At the worst of times, SAD can feel like a barrier to your happiness. But it doesn’t have to rule your life. With treatment, knowledge and a little patience — there’s hope.
- Mayo Clinic. (2017). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
- (2016, September 8). Drowsy Driving. NHTSA. https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drowsy-driving