It’s no secret that the long harsh days of winter can get us feeling not our best. Between colds and runny noses, negative temperatures, and literal weeks without sunlight, winter in the Midwest can be a little disheartening. Although anyone can get a little bummed during the long days of winter, some people experience seasonal depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If you notice yourself feeling noticeable down during the late fall and winter months, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Of course experiencing a little bit of winter blues is very common – it’s cold for literal months so feeling a little down or agitated is warranted. So how do you know if you have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a depression that comes with the changing seasons. Most people that experience SAD feel it during the late fall and winter, but some people experience SAD during the spring and summer months as well. As the acronym suggests, SAD makes you feel sad, among other things. It’s more than just an occasional sadness, however.

What symptoms can I expect?

Seasonal Affective Disorder’s symptoms begin milder at the start of the winter season and get progressively worse as the season goes on, which is understandable because winter gets worse as the season goes on. (I don’t like winter, can you tell?) Symptoms include feeling depressed for most of the day almost every day, a decreased interest in activities that usually bring you joy, feeling more agitated than usual, change in your sleeping habits (trouble sleeping or oversleeping), trouble concentrating, changes in your weight and appetite, and having overall low energy and feeling depressed. 

Seasonal depression is most commonly caused by your body’s natural reaction to decreased levels of sunlight. Dropping levels of serotonin (a chemical in your brain that affects your mood) or melatonin (a chemical in your body that affects your sleep) can also trigger SAD. The lack of sunlight can cause all of these levels in the body to change. Some people are more naturally predisposed to seasonal depression if they have blood relatives that also experience SAD. If you’re someone who already deals with depression or bipolar disorder, your symptoms might worsen during the winter months as well.

Are there any treatments for SAD?

Although there is technically no cure for SAD, there are many ways to manage it. Since SAD is triggered in most people due to lack of sunlight, you can purchase a SAD lamp. Light therapy is a great treatment for seasonal depression. Studies have found that sitting in front of a bright light within the first hour of waking up can help decrease the effects of seasonal depression. Seasonal affective disorder lights can be purchased online at a reasonable price, or if you have a natural light lamp for plants or pets, you could just use that.

For some people who are already on medication for depression or bipolar disorder, you could speak with your doctor about adjusting your medication during this time of year to account for the worsening moods. You can also step up your self-care game during this time of year. Although seasonal depression is difficult, at least you know about when you’ll start feeling symptoms each year, so you can prepare and set yourself up for success in managing your symptoms. You could try and spend as much time outside as possible on the days where the weather isn’t as cold. Meditation can help you find a sense of calm and routine during a time of year when your mood is fluctuating. Exercise is also recommended as a way to treat SAD.

If it’s in your budget, you could also arrange a vacation to a sunny destination to get some of that vitamin D you have been missing. Staying social can also help when you are feeling down because of seasonal depression. Although you’ll likely feel unlike socializing, being around other people can help you feel a little better when you’re experiencing symptoms. Additionally, going to therapy can be a great way to treat your symptoms as well. Treating your symptoms might not completely get rid of your seasonal depression, but it can make it way more manageable.

Remember that you’re not alone!

You know your body best, so find things to do that you know will make you feel a little brighter as you’re dealing with SAD. Also, don’t be afraid to talk about it. I have experienced symptoms of SAD for the past several winters, and through talking with several friends about it, I’ve found they experience it as well. It feels good to find someone else who can relate to these low feelings during this time of year. You could even manage your SAD with a friend. Plan a weekly time to get together and do something fun or even exercise together. 

If your seasonal depression gets really bad or feels worse than usual, contact your doctor. Be gentle with yourself and learn what works best for you and your body.