Understanding and Navigating Seasonal Affective Disorder
A day in the life
You wake up to the sound of your alarm and can barely believe that it is time to start the day. As you open your eyes and begin to orient yourself to the morning, you peer outside to find that it is still dark. Against your continued belief that it is too early to be awake, you get out of bed and convince yourself to start getting ready. Stumbling through each task feels like an incredible feat, but you get it done and begin your journey to work, still in the dark.
The hours of work drag on as you fight back yawns in meetings and make little mistakes that you never typically make, until it is finally time to clock out. You shake off the stress of your workday as best you can and look outside for possibly the first time since you arrived only to find that it is dark again. You wonder casually if the sun ever made an appearance and begin to reflect on when the last time you spent a moment in the daylight was.
When you can switch work mode off and home mode on, you feel incredibly unmotivated to finish out the tasks of the day – make dinner, eat dinner, clean up dinner, tidy up and get things ready for the next day. You wonder when you might find time to rest, engage in a hobby, connect with friends and family … to do anything besides wake up in the dark, work, go to bed far later than you intended to -- again in the dark.
Does this sound familiar?
Demystifying seasonal affective disorder
Prevalence of SAD
The good news and bad news are that you are not alone. In fact, according to Mental Health America, seasonal affective disorder, aptly shortened to SAD, is reported in roughly 5% of the U.S. population each year . While 5% might seem like a small number, that is approximately 16.7 million individuals. Additionally, four out of five individuals who report symptoms of SAD are women, and the mean onset is between 20 and 30 years of age. Interestingly, the darkness plays an active role in the prevalence of SAD. Globally, the prevalence of SAD is 0-10% of the population, showing higher rates farther from the equator .
Causes of SAD
Two primary factors that are shown to contribute to SAD are reduced levels of sunlight in the winter months and higher levels of melatonin in a person’s system, which is produced naturally in the dark . Additional factors that are suspected to contribute to SAD include hereditary predisposition as well as cognitive and behavioral attributes such as poor coping skills, as well as a general negative disposition to winter months . Simply put, SAD is a real condition based on physiological changes in the brain that impact the way one feels during the darker months of the year.
Symptoms of SAD
SAD is characterized by a marked change in an individual’s overall mood during the fall and winter months. This often looks much like typical depressive symptoms; however, the defining feature is that these emotions, feelings and interruptions are limited to a few months out of each year rather than consistent throughout a lifetime. In addition to feelings of depression, including hopelessness and diminished interest in activities, one may also experience anxiety, lethargy, sleep issues and social problems .
The light at the end of the tunnel
SAD is a common issue that 0-10% of the global population experience every year . While there are some known causes and other largely debated contributing factors, the evidence is clear that if this is something you are going through this season, you are not alone. While we wait for the sun to reappear, here are a few ways to combat your seasonally induced sadness.
- Manufacture the light. Because the primary onset of SAD is a result of lack of sunlight, it is important to find ways to supplement the loss of natural sunlight. Light therapy, or phototherapy, is a tool that mimics outdoor light. These “light boxes” can be purchased and used in your home to ensure you are exposed to light within the first few hours of the day . If a light box is out of your price range, there are a few additional options including purchasing a sunrise simulator alarm clock, as well as capitalizing on the daylight whenever you can. This can be done by ensuring window blinds are open throughout the day, or by bundling up and getting some fresh air .
- Talk to someone. A traditional way to combat SAD is to engage in talk therapy that utilizes cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to identify and change thoughts and behaviors . While therapy can be effective, it may be out of reach for many. A primary reason to engage in talk therapy is to decrease social isolation, and this can also be done by engaging your natural supports . Your social support system can assist you in preemptively warding off or minimizing feelings associated with SAD. In place of natural social supports, consider joining a book club or online support group. Find information on ERC Pathlight’s free online support group offerings here.
- Adjust your environment. Along the same line as making sure you’re allowing natural light in throughout the day, there are additional ways you can enhance your environment to boost your mood. For example, you can add fragrance in your home using essential oils or candles, or you can get creative with fruits and herbs in your pantry. Another way to brighten your home is by adding plants throughout, which will also improve the air quality as well as reduce stress and improve your overall sense of well-being .
However you work to alleviate feelings of sadness during the winter months, know that you are not alone.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) | Mental Health America (mhanational.org)
- Pathogenesis and management of seasonal affective disorder - Cotterell - 2010 - Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry - Wiley Online Library
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) - Diagnosis and treatment - Mayo Clinic
- 14 Ways to ease seasonal depression | Everyday Health
- Health benefits of indoor plants (piedmont.org)