As we enter January and the new year, many people struggle with the transition to increased darkness and the colder weather. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately half a million people in the United States suffer with winter Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD with three-quarters of the sufferers being women. It typically occurs in late fall and stays through the winter months of January and February. So, what are the symptoms of SAD and what can we do to cope with the darkness?
To be diagnosed with SAD, you would meet criteria for a major depressive disorder. Symptoms of major depressive disorder include feeling depressed most days, feeling hopeless, changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities, trouble concentrating, and thoughts of suicide. Winter SAD would specifically include low energy, sleeping or eating more, and social isolation. Winter SAD also specifies that your depressive symptoms are directly related to specific seasons and occurring for at least two years. In other words, if you are noticing a pattern in your mood that is correlated with the winter season, you could have SAD.
There is no exact cause of SAD but there is speculation. The change in the availability of sunlight in the winter months can shift our internal clock which regulates processes like sleep and hormone levels impacting mood. Also related to lack of sunlight, others have suggested that melatonin may be produced more often for some during winter increasing feelings of sluggishness and social withdrawal.
So, what can you do if you have SAD? Phototherapy or light therapy can be helpful to reduce symptoms of SAD in combination with medication management. Light therapy consists of sitting near a device that holds fluorescent tubes that emit light. This form of therapy should only be used if prescribed by your doctor. Recent studies from the Cleveland Clinic show that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is highly effective in reducing symptoms of SAD. This style of therapy assists with recognizing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to create lasting changes by evaluating and reframing thought processes.
If you think you have SAD, here are some easy action steps. Spend time outside even if it’s overcast. Going for a walk on Raleigh’s Greenway trails or even sitting outside on your porch will be beneficial to get some sunlight. Continue healthy habits such as eating healthy and exercising. Ensure that you are socializing with others to avoid isolation. Set a goal to intentionally connect with others at least once a week. If you can combine these healthy habits with socializing, even better!
If you think you have SAD, we can help by using CBT. Don’t muddle through this winter season alone! Connect with me or other therapists at FFT through our convenient online scheduling. We look forward to helping you.
Renee Pugh, Licensed Clinical Social Worker