Finding it hard to motivate yourself in the cold? You aren’t alone…
When the seasons change you may find that those changes take a toll on your mental health. Some people use terms like “seasonal depression” or the “winter blues” to describe mood changes that happen when the days get shorter in the fall and winter.
When these seasonal mood changes seriously affect the way you feel, think, and handle daily activities, you may be experiencing something called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression. SAD follows a seasonal pattern with symptoms lasting approximately 4 to 5 months per year. The signs and symptoms of SAD include those associated with major depression.
Specific symptoms of SAD include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating (especially carbs!)
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (can anyone say “hibernation?”)
So, why does SAD happen? Well, scientists still don’t fully understand why SAD occurs. The most popular theory is that the condition is related to changes in daylight. Research suggests that sunlight can influence how the body produces serotonin – the body’s “feel good” chemical that helps regulate mood – and melatonin – the hormone that drives your sleep-wake cycle. Based on this theory, fewer daylight hours in the fall and winter increase melatonin levels and a drop in serotonin in winter-pattern SAD, which can lead to feeling sluggish and gloomy.
If you think you may be experiencing SAD, it’s important to talk to your doctor or a mental health provider about your concerns.
There are other things you can do to help cope with SAD. Here are some tips:
- Light therapy. This can include purposefully taking walks during the day when it’s sunny, or sitting in front of a light box for about 30 to 45 minutes. Light boxes give off light that is similar to sunshine and can help get your sleep-wake cycle back on track.
- Get active. Research shows that regular exercise can help manage symptoms of depression and the same goes for SAD.
- Pay attention to your diet. Whether you’re prone to overeating with winter-pattern SAD or not, it helps to make sure you’re eating plenty of nutritious foods and avoid using food to cope or cure boredom.
Plan ahead. Consider what aspects of your “problem seasons” have the most impact on your mood. Is it stress related to the fall and winter holidays? Or spending less time outdoors? Planning enjoyable activities and relaxation time with these things in mind can help manage and reduce your symptoms, and make you feel more in control.