Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder

It’s a cold January morning and my alarm indicating “You need to leave your apartment right now!” is frantically buzzing. I’m running late for work. I hit snooze yet again, then spend 10 minutes wrangling the one warm scarf that doesn’t make my hair a static mess. I get outside and face an obstacle course of ice patches, dirt-covered black snowbanks, and slush puddles. I go from the dark street down to the even darker subway platform and join the herd of bundled up commuters.

As we all sit in silence on the train, I think about how different my mornings were in September. In September, I’d started my mornings off with sunny runs in Central Park and iced coffees on my fire escape. I had glided down the sidewalk listening to my “hits of the summer” playlist. The subway platform had brimmed with chatty tourists, bright floral dresses, and performers. There was no denying a shift in my own mood and behavior as well as in that of my fellow New Yorkers.

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. There are physiological and environmental changes during the winter that influence our wellbeing. When these changes start to significantly impact our day-to-day life, it’s referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (a.k.a. SAD). SAD is different from normal depression in that its symptoms appear in the fall and winter and usually get better when springtime comes.

Why Do We Experience Seasonal Affective Disorder

Researchers have developed a few theories as to why some people experience SAD. The first theory has to do with light. Light travels through our eyes to the area of our brain that controls appetite, sleep, and mood. For each person, the level of light needed to manage these functions is different. When we don’t get enough light, our brain slows down, sometimes to the point where it stops these functions.

People who need more light may be more likely to have their brain slow down or stop some of these functions. A second theory is that SAD may be influenced by our body clock. Our brains use daylight to set our internal clock. If there’s less daylight, then our body clocks can’t adjust correctly. For some people, this can lead to feeling tired and down. Other events that can contribute to SAD include grief or increased use of substances like drugs and alcohol during the winter months.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Knowing the symptoms of SAD is critical for successfully managing it. Some symptoms include:

  • Loss of interest or joy. Not feeling that spark or enthusiasm about things that you remember enjoying or being passionate about in the past.
  • Sleep issues. Feeling like you are sleeping more than usual or having a hard time falling or staying asleep.
  • Changes in mood. Noticing you’re feeling low or down a lot of the time.
  • Low energy. Feeling like you’re operating in slow motion and getting things done takes a lot of extra effort.
  • Difficulty paying attention and focusing. Finding it difficult to concentrate or finding you’re easily distracted.
  • Feeling on edge. Feeling like you’re easily irritated or anxious a lot of the time.
  • Social isolation. Feeling like you want to be alone or like hanging out with friends and family would take too much effort.
  • Change in appetite. Finding you’re craving carbs, wanting to snack and eat more than usual, or noticing weight gain.
  • Change in sex drive. Feeling like you have a lower sex drive or don’t want to be touched.
  • Using more drugs and alcohol. Noticing you are drinking or using drugs more than usual or have a stronger craving for drugs or alcohol.

If you think you might have SAD, reach out to a trained medical professional for an official diagnosis.

How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you’re struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there is hope. You don’t need to pack up and move to a sunny beach town in order to find joy during the winter. Here are some tips on how to keep your SAD under control.

Soak up all the light you can.
Because SAD is related to a lack of light, making an extra effort to get light is critical. When possible, spend time outside in the sunlight. Even if you can only squeeze a walk around the block in the middle of the day or spend a few minutes sitting near a window, extra light can make a huge difference. Other small changes like not wearing sunglasses and turning on lights can brighten our moods.

Many people find light therapy to be helpful for SAD. One of the most common forms of light therapy comes from lightboxes specifically designed to treat SAD. These lightboxes can be expensive, but there are cheaper alternatives out there. Consult a professional like a therapist or school counselor to find the right option for you.

Limit Stress.
Try to plan ahead for the winter. If possible, avoid big life changes like moving or starting a new job if you experience symptoms of SAD. Keep up with your self-care to manage stress. Not sure where to start? Check out our post on winter self-care tips.

Stay Connected.
Social supports are an important part of our mental health. During the winter months, it can be difficult to remain social. It becomes challenging to make plans with friends and family when it’s cold and dark by the time we get home. If committing to plans feels like too much, try spending time in communal spaces. Go to public places like the mall, a coffee shop, or the gym. Being around others can do wonders for lifting our mood and managing SAD.

If you’ve managed to make plans but are thinking about bailing, try just taking the first step towards heading out. Start putting on your shoes, brushing your teeth, or gathering your keys and wallet. After those first little steps, see if you have the energy to take one more step. You might notice that by the time you’ve gotten moving, you feel excited about being social.

Seasonal depression got you feeling down? Text a Crisis Counselor at 741741.

It takes some extra work to build joy into our lives during the darker winter months. With these tips in hand, you’re well on your way!

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