What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?


As summer comes to an end and autumn swiftly approaches, some may be excited about the changing of the seasons. The start of colder weather brings Halloween, a change of scene as the leaves change colors, and pumpkin spice. However, it also is the time when Seasonal Affective Disorder (more commonly referred to as SAD) comes to make its mark SAD is a mood disorder that typically occurs in late autumn and winter months, when people are said to exhibit symptoms of depression. It is classified as a major depressive disorder. 

People that suffer from winter SAD may experience symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, thoughts of suicide, loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from social interactions, oversleeping, and nausea. It is important to talk to your doctor if you believe you may have SAD or depression. 

According to MedicalNewsToday, experts are not entirely sure what the cause of SAD is. There are studies that suggest circadian rhythm, melatonin levels, and the hypothalamus play a role, and they all revolve around exposure to sunlight. Circadian rhythm is the internal clock that lets you know when to be awake and asleep. Our circadian rhythm can be disrupted in the colder months due to a decrease in sunlight, thus causing depressive episodes. Similarly affected by a decrease in sunlight is melatonin, the hormone that determines sleep patterns and mood. This disruption  can, in turn, impact serotonin levels. Lastly, the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls sleep, mood, and appetite, which is thought to be stimulated by sunlight. Sunlight plays an important role in how the body functions, so it is no surprise that it can have such a dramatic impact on mental health. 

It may seem like a scary thought and make you fearful of the approaching colder weather, but below are some suggestions on how to combat SAD.

  1. Talk to a doctor to discuss your options. If you feel as though you may be a victim of depression or SAD, there are options available to you. A doctor may recommend therapy as a means to cope and talk through your issues. If a therapist deems it necessary, antidepressants may be prescribed in conjunction with therapy. A doctor may recommend incorporating vitamin supplements (i.e. vitamin D) into your diet. First and foremost, talking to a doctor and seeing what they recommend would be the best first step in combating SAD.

  2. An at-home treatment is light box therapy, which can be incorporated in your everyday routine. A light therapy box mimics outdoor light, and using this may ease symptoms of SAD. You should typically use the light box within the first hour of waking up in the morning for about 20 to 30 minutes, at a distance of around 16 to 24 inches from the face and with open eyes, but not looking directly at the light. Light boxes are safe and can be effective, but they are not approved by the FDA for SAD treatment. It is the most important to discuss your options with your doctor.

  3. Dawn simulators are alarm clocks that use light instead of noise to wake you up (although I personally would still need noise). It gradually increases the light in your bedroom in the morning while you are asleep. This gradual light acts as an antidepressant because it tricks your brain into believing that it is July. Your body knows what season it is primarily by the time in which the morning light appears. By “faking” the time the sun comes up, it’ll make your brain believe it is still summer and thus fake your body into giving you more energy throughout the day. Although this may seem odd, it is a cheaper alternative to light box therapy and it creates a light show in your room!

  4. A simpler solution is exercise. When I say simpler, I mean in the sense that this can be done from home and can be free! If you don’t exercise already, a great way to get started is to think of the benefits it provides your mental health. There are so many ways to get exercise in (running, yoga, weight training, dancing, walking, etc.). It is up to you to pick your favorite.

  5. Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts and what you’re going through is a great way to clear up some headspace. Journaling can be therapeutic. I never used to believe that journaling could be an effective tool in combating anxiety and depression until I tried it. It’s also simple, free, and can be done from the comfort of your home.

  6. Meditating is a great way to also level yourself. It keeps you in touch with your inner thoughts and provides an outlet to get frustrations out.

  7. Staying connected with loved ones may be hard during stressful and emotionally exhausting times in your life, but it is so beneficial to be around be people you love and trust during a difficult time. Laughter and being the presence of people that are accepting and non-judgmental can really help with mental health issues.