A few weeks ago, I began to have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. My body and brain felt sluggish and low, and I started swapping out exercise and socializing in favor of Rice Krispie treats and a seemingly endless Buffy the Vampire Slayer binge (thank you Hulu!). A fun fact about freelancing is that you lose track of the calendar, and I didn’t immediately connect the onset of fall with this particular bout of depression. But it appears autumn is here; the end of daylight savings is almost upon us, and it’s time for the SAD to set in once more.
SAD stands for “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” and while there is some debate over whether or not it’s actually a standalone psychological disorder, studies do show that people can experience depression when seasons change. About 10 to 20 percent of the United States population experiences SAD, with women making up about 75 percent of that statistic. The phenomenon, according to psychologists, is due to the change in sunlight, particularly in parts of the world that struggle to get it in the winter months.
It’s not exactly clear what causes SAD, but researchers believe that a reduction in sunlight leads to a slowdown in the brain’s release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that scientists believe regulates mood, appetite, digestion, desire, social behavior, sleep, memory, and other factors that contribute heavily to our general state of wellbeing.
Moreover, darker seasons affect the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. The pineal gland produces more melatonin when it’s dark, prompting you to go to sleep, and less when it’s light, making it easier for you to stay awake. The darker it is, the sleepier you are, hence why the winter months can make you feel sluggish.
“Our brains tend to respond to light in terms of circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid. “Some people respond with a drop in mood, feeling lethargic. You get the instinct to hibernate.” Other symptoms include irritability, anxiety, loss of interest in activities that used to excite you, and an urge to withdraw and isolate.
SAD is especially strong in places with significant seasonal change, like the Northeastern United States, and tends to lift when the seasons change back and the sun returns. But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to experience when you’re in it, especially in January and February, when winter seems as though it will be endless. Here are some tips to keep you sane ‘til spring.
Pinpoint the problem
One of the trickiest things about SAD is that the hormonal shifts can be so slight, it’s hard to tell that something’s wrong in the first place. Though some SAD sufferers battle full-throttle depression, others might feel just a little grumpy or sleepy, and/or have inexplicable cravings for sweets and carbohydrates.
Dr. Ani Kalayjian, a Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and the author of Forget Me Not: 7 Steps for Healing Our Body, Mind, Spirit, and Mother Earth, says it’s a good idea to keep daily track of your moods on a one to 10 scale. “Although there are general symptoms [of SAD], you need to know how it impacts you directly,” she says. “On the emotional level we don’t have thermometers, so we have to measure up to 10, ‘How irritable do I feel now?’ If it’s below four, we can continue with our work and daily life, but when we get over four, we tend to lose control.”
Other symptoms, in addition to irritability, include: low energy and lethargy, having trouble concentrating, some anxiety, being more reactive to irritants and other triggers, a sudden need to withdraw, an urge to hibernate, a decrease in sexual drive, a change in appetite (particularly a craving for carbohydrates), and a general sense of sadness. If you find this change in mood starts sometime in October and November and persists for more than a few weeks, there’s a good chance it’s SAD.
Invest in a light therapy lamp
One of the quickest and most effective ways to manage seasonal depression is with a light therapy lamp. “These are light lamps that light up to 10,000 lux of light, which functions as a replacement for the sun, in a way,” Winch says.
There are a number of different kinds of light boxes available, and though Winch suggests setting one up near you for about 10 to 20 minutes while you’re eating breakfast in the morning, your mental health provider might recommend a specific one to use for a certain duration at a certain time of day depending on the severity of your symptoms.
Each box will have different instructions for how to place it, but the result is more or less the same. “It makes it feel like it’s a really sunny day outside,” Winch says. “It’s a really effective tool.” There are lots of light therapy lamps available online at a variety of price points, or you can make your own, if you are so inclined.
One of the things we lose when sunlight diminishes is Vitamin D3, a deficit of which causes symptoms akin to those comprising SAD. “The majority of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D3, and that causes very similar signs of SAD and depression, like not wanting to get out of bed, feeling sad, being irritable” Kalayjian says.
She suggests stocking up on Vitamin D3 supplements (pills, chewables, and creams) to help stave off some of those symptoms. “If they have any signs of SAD, they should take 4,000 international units,” Kalayjian says. “If there aren’t any severe signs, just take 2,000 units for maintenance.” Note that you should consult with your doctor before taking any supplements, and also note that not all kinds are created equal, though ConsumerLab.com has a good list of reputable brands.