Winter is here in full swing and for us in Michigan that means lots of clouds and not a lot of sunshine. As far as weather patterns go, it’s not what we would consider the most optimal for mental health. In fact, as you may already know, dark cloudy days can bring dark cloudy moods. In this blog we’re going to discuss Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms and what you can do to put the kibosh on your cold weather blues.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression. Whereas sadness tends to be linked to specific events in life and may appear and resolve itself in a manner of days, depression tends to be more vague in its cause, more severe in its effect and it may linger for weeks, months, or even years. Someone suffering from depression may feel worthless, hopeless, or guilty for no apparent reason.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression caused by the changing of the seasons, usually appearing in fall or winter. It is believed to be triggered by a decrease in exposure to sunlight, resulting in an increase in melatonin production. This chemical change in the brain triggers a sort of hibernation that may have been evolutionarily advantageous to our ancient ancestors but isn’t very helpful in modern times. As much as we might want to, cultural pressures make it tricky to sleep for 6 months at a time.
If you are experiencing mood changes due to the cold weather but it doesn’t exactly qualify as full-blown depression, that’s called the winter blues. The winter blues is sort of like SAD lite. While they have similar symptoms, sufferers of the winter blues will still find themselves able to enjoy life in general. Both can be treated in similar ways.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
- Feeling depressed most of the day, most of the time
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling worthless
- Lower than normal energy
- Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
- Difficulty sleeping—sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling tired regardless of how much you slept
- Changes in appetite and weight
- Feeling agitated
- Difficulty focusing
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
What Can I Do To Combat SAD or Winter Blues?
The good news is there are a number of simple steps you can take to combat seasonal depression, whether it’s full blown SAD or winter blues.
Take a Hike
Perhaps the easiest and most accessible option is to get outside. Bundle up, find some woods and go for a walk. Try to spend at least 30 minutes (optimally 2 hours) outside and pay attention to your surroundings (put your phone away, or leave it behind!).
Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese doctor who is considered the world’s foremost expert on forest medicine wrote a book about the importance of what the Japanese call Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing.
In an article for Time magazine Dr. Li explained that “the key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches…Now you have connected with nature.”
You may not get different greens in Michigan during the winter, but even various browns and whites can be beneficial to your health. Rinse and repeat every day if possible, until you feel better.
Get Some Light
Another fairly easy step to take is to get a sunlamp for light therapy. They cost on average between $60-$150. Your typical light bulb produces around 1600 lumens of light. A sunlamp produces between 5000 to 10000 lumens, enough to trick your body into producing the correct hormones and resetting your circadian rhythm.
Studies have shown that 60-80% of individuals with SAD benefit from light therapy. 30-90 minutes of light therapy a day can begin to alleviate SAD symptoms in only 2-4 days! It may be a bigger up front investment than you want to make but you can use a sunlamp over and over, year after year.
A sunlamp should be used early in the morning for best results. A good sunlamp should come with its own directions, but usually you want to place it to the left or right of your field of vision, just 6 inches to a foot away from your face. It should shine in your eyes but you don’t want to look directly into it.
If you want to buy yourself a sunlamp and need to do some research, this article on Medical News Today is a decent place to start: Five of the best sun lamps.
Don’t Do It Alone
If you have Seasonal Affective Disorder and you’re in the depths of depression it may be too much to think about taking steps to combat it alone. Many people with SAD also have trauma, guilt, or feelings of hopelessness that might make it difficult to break out of the pattern. If that’s you, we cannot recommend enough that you talk with a therapist.
One of the most difficult things about depression is how it can leave you unable to do anything—paralyzed by negative thoughts and beliefs you feel like you don’t have the energy to overcome. Working with a trained therapist can shed some light on your dark situation. A good therapist will help you identify and change the negative thoughts and behaviors that are hurting you. They can help you forward one step at a time, help you understand that things are getting better, and keep you on track when challenges present themselves.
The therapists at The Truism Center are standing by and ready to help you overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s been a challenging year for many of us, but the good news is we don’t have to do it alone. Reach out now to talk to someone.