By: Lauren Hallerud, M.A., LPC

Day Lights Savings time and the feeling as if it is midnight by 5:30 PM, temperatures in the lower digits, icy, snow covered cars and sidewalks to scrape or shovel, fewer holidays to plan for and look forward to for a few months, spring semester beginning for students, more months with the kids and eLearning from home, national and global stressors, increased isolation and limited activities to do outside of the house, and the reality that we approach the eleventh month of the Covid-19 pandemic during what are traditionally the hardest and most depressing months of the year…these are a few factors that may feel as though they are hitting you harder this year or impacting your mental health more significantly. If you can relate to any of these seasonal stressors and their impact on your mental health, you are far from alone in potentially being impacted by Seasonal Affective Disorder (ironically enough, SAD for short). 

Traditionally towards the end of January, early February through the spring season, depression tends to intensify and peak. Research shows this happens for millions of people in our country alone. Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans. Another 10 percent to 20 percent may have mild SAD. In most cases, the symptoms of SAD appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses. 

So what symptoms should you look out for?

Symptoms of SAD include; 

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in or a loss of pleasure from activities you once enjoyed (also known as anhedonia)
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Do any of these symptoms get in the way of your day-to-day responsibilities, social engagements, fitness goals, New Year’s resolutions, or motivate you to hibernate at home versus keep up with your physical and mental health? What do you notice? When does this begin for you? And end? Do you notice reoccurring symptoms in the winter or the beginning of the spring each year? Perhaps you have never really thought about this as an annual issue or as a pattern or as a cycle with warning signs and red flags that you may be falling back into. This may be a sign that you experience SAD. 

Before discussing ways to cope with and better manage symptoms of SAD, a quick note on the causes of symptoms of SAD. While the specific cause of SAD remains unknown, some factors that may come into play include a decrease in sunlight in the fall and winter that can; disrupt our biological clock (also known as our circadian rhythm), decreases in serotonin (a neurotransmitter or brain chemical that impacts mood) can trigger depression, and a disruption of melatonin levels (which also play a role in mood, as well as sleep patterns). Some risk factors that can make you more prone to experiencing symptoms of SAD include; being female (it is four times more common in women than men), being younger or a young adult (is occurs more frequently in younger adults than older adults), suffering from mild to severe major depression or bipolar disorder (symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions), having a family history of blood relatives with SAD or depression, and living far from the equator. SAD appears to be more common among people who live further north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months (lucky us being in the Northern part of North America and in northern Illinois)!

So how do we manage these symptoms when not being able to travel closer to the equator or escape the gray, cold days? There are many coping skills and options to add into your routine to reduce the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and make the winter months more bearable.

Some effective coping skills include: 

  • Knowing your stressors, main excuses and barriers for self-care, exercise, socializing, etc. There are ways to not let these typical roadblocks become barriers. We can find alternative behaviors or solutions. 
  • Complete a workout at home if weather or public health conditions do not permit travel or a safe, public place to exercise. 
  • Prepack clothes and snacks before work and workout on your way home – wait out rush hour and get that workout over with, then head home (you will be less likely to leave once home if coming straight home from work).
  • Schedule activities, walks, and workouts before your week begins, just as you would schedule your working hours or social activities.
  • Work on reality checking thoughts, expectations for yourself, and be mindful of perfectionism and strong self-criticism.
  • Review your balance in life and work to improve your balance of self-care with all other responsibilities. 
  • Research new activities you have wanted to try and learn (even physical things that can be done indoors for those super cold days).
  • Stick to your treatment plan. Follow your treatment plan and attend therapy and medication management appointments when scheduled.
    • Psychotherapy (or talk therapy) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be effective in treating SAD.
    • Taking medication, natural supplements, and vitamins such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, St John’s-wort, SAMe, 5HTP, valerian root, and natural mood boosters. 
  • Light therapy – One of the simplest and most effective forms of therapy during your toughest months! Sitting next to a light therapy lamp with a brightness of 10,000 lux daily while drinking your morning coffee or waking up in bed can boost mood, energy, focus, and improve your sleep patterns. Please note, if you experience Bipolar Disorder, light therapy lamps may not be safe for you to use. Please discuss your individual symptoms and diagnoses with your doctor before purchasing or using one as light therapy can induce a mixed state or mania in individuals with Bipolar disorder. 
  • Essential oils and oil diffusers, pillow sprays, soaps, and lotions – Essential oils can be used to boost mood, improve sleep, reduce stress, and relieve pain and nausea. The best part is that you simply must plug them in, spray them, and use them as you would other daily products. 
  • Get enough, quality sleep.  Get enough sleep to help you feel rested but be careful not to get too much rest as SAD symptoms often lead people to feel like hibernating and sleeping more than they usually would or longer than they need to. 
  • Avoid turning to alcohol or recreational drugs for relief. Substitute these substances with healthy snacks, smoothies, hot tea, etc.
  • Practice stress management. Learn techniques to manage your stress better. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, overeating, or other unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Do some research or ask your individual therapist for tips on the following;
    • Deep breathing
    • Meditation
    • Deep muscle relaxation
    • Guided imagery
    • Music or art therapy 
  • Place comfort items in visible sight in rooms you spend most of your time in. Make comfort convenient while making home even more appealing when stuck indoors for the day or evening with items like; adult coloring books, journals, coloring supplies, favorite books, candles, blankets, weighted blankets, throw pillows, etc.  
  • Socialize and stay in touch with your support circle. When you are feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Try to connect with people you enjoy being around (especially via text, phone, or video apps). They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on, or shared laughter to give you a little boost even from a distance. 
  • Make realistic plans. If you are likely to stay out of the house once you have left the house, leave at a time that you are likely to go out and actually leave the house. 
  • Take a trip. If possible and given the option, take winter vacations in sunny, warm locations if you have winter SAD or visit cooler locations if you have summer SAD.
  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight, or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office, use lamps, and light more candles where appropriate and safe to do so.
  • Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch on your porch, at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
  • Make healthier choices for meals or snacks and ditch the junk food as much as possible. Those sugar boosts are short lived, the feeling is not sustainable, and they can pack on the pounds. 
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood. Even stretching, yoga, and tai chi can be both relaxing, energizing, and keep you moving. Participate in an in person or remote exercise program or engage in another form of regular physical activity. If getting to the gym is tough or feels unsafe, bring the gym to your home with equipment you can store away when not in use or where you spend a lot of time indoors. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder is very much treatable and manageable. If you feel as though you are suffering from symptoms of SAD or increased stressors during this winter season, you are far from alone and the Long Grove Center is here for you. Please consider contacting one of our clinicians at the Long Grove Center for greater awareness of your own patterns, a greater understanding of your symptoms, the opportunity to learn different coping skills and adapt them to your daily routine, and to receive some well-deserved support during this unforgettable winter season.