Things to help avoid seasonal affective disorder

Feeling the blues

Winter blues, another name for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a form of depression that has a seasonal pattern which can start in fall and last until spring. As the days get shorter and colder, the lack of sunlight can leave you feeling sad, low energy or you may experience changes in sleep and eating habits (usually wanting to sleep and eat more) and the desire to isolate.

SAD is more than just “winter blues.” The symptoms can be distressing, overwhelming and can interfere with daily function. SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter.

In addition to being in the midst of cold, winter months, we’re also currently coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 affects us every day. We are isolated and separated from family and friends. Many are experiencing job loss. These factors and others can lead to the same symptoms we may see in seasonal affective disorders. 

Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

Feeling of sadness or depressed mood; marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed; changes in appetite – usually eating more, craving carbohydrates; change in sleep – usually sleeping too much; loss of energy or increased fatigue despite increased sleep hours; increase in restless activity (such as hand-wringing or pacing), or slowed movements and speech; feeling worthless or guilty; trouble concentrating or making decisions, thoughts of death or suicide; attempts at suicide.

SAD can be effectively treated in a number of ways, including light therapy, antidepressant medication, talk therapy or some combination of these. While symptoms will generally improve on their own with the change of season, symptoms can improve more quickly with treatment.

Black man jogging in the snow

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help prevent this disorder, beginning with certain lifestyle changes. There are different aspects of well-being, and you can focus on making changes in each during the seven months of fall and winter:

  • Physical – Maintaining your level of exercise and a healthy balanced diet are great ways to elevate your mood and energy levels throughout the winter months. It is also important to regulate your sleep patterns; avoid sleeping during the day and avoid overindulging in caffeine and alcohol.
  • Emotional – Keep a gratitude journal. It’s easy to get sucked into all the parts of the day that aren’t perfect. Instead, make a point to write down what you’re grateful for each day.
  • Social – Make an effort to keep socializing in a safe way. Maintain social relationships by making a phone call, setting up a video chat, sending a letter or even writing a few quick text messages. Checking in on other people can help boost both your spirits and theirs. 
  • Spiritual – Be mindful of this moment. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of winter, embrace the season and find things you like about it.
  • Environmental– Get outside! Even if it’s only for a few minutes, the fresh air and sunshine can help you feel refreshed. Light bulbs that emit a certain wavelength that mimic the vitamin D in sunlight can also be helpful to use periodically.

Additionally, while we’re coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to remember to stay positive. In times of constant negative messaging, strive for a positive attitude and move forward with determination and hope. Engage in activities that are positive, heartwarming, stress-reducing and laughter-inducing – and remember that we will get through this. 

These simple actions can help you stay positive: 

Remember that things will not be this way forever;  remind yourself of what is good in your life; limit intake of TV time; look after your neighbors and stay safe; send gifts in the mail; take advantage of newfound time, practice random acts of kindness.

If you have been experiencing signs of seasonal affective disorder for more than two weeks and lifestyle changes aren’t helping to alleviate the symptoms, it may be time to talk to your doctor or contact a behavioral health specialist. Depression is a serious condition and the longer treatment is delayed, the harder the recovery.