Seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression, is a mental health condition that affects people based on the season. Winter depression is the most common and usually starts in late fall and can extend through winter and into spring.
Some people have summer depression from late spring into early summer. This type is less common. Many believe that the difference could be related to the amount of sunlight each season gets. Summer months tend to have more hours of light while the winter and fall seasons have fewer.
Approximately 10% to 20% of people experience mild seasonal affective disorder. The condition is four times more common in women compared to men. It usually appears in people who are over age 20 but can show up in children and teenagers.
Location may also play a role in your seasonal depression risk. Those who live further north are more likely to experience it.
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
As mentioned above, sunlight is believed to be a factor in seasonal affective disorder. Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact cause, but there are several theories.
- Imbalance in Brain Chemicals – Brain chemicals like serotonin send messages to nerves. Serotonin also causes us to feel happy. People with low serotonin activity may be prone to seasonal depression because a lack of sunlight makes the problem worse. Less serotonin can make a person feel depressed.
- Change in Biological Clock – We often forget just how powerful the human biological clock can be. It is responsible for helping to regulate hormones, sleep, and mood. When our internal clock changes, this can throw us off our daily schedule. Shorter daylight hours can make it difficult for a person to adjust.
- A Vitamin D Deficiency – Vitamin D also boosts our serotonin levels. Sunlight is a great source of vitamin D. During darker seasons, we are getting less sunlight which means less vitamin D production.
- Boost of Melatonin – Melatonin is used to help us develop a sleep pattern. When there is less sunlight, the body may begin to overproduce melatonin. Too much of this chemical can make a person feel sleepy and sluggish. It can also affect mood until melatonin production is balanced again.
How Do I Know If I Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?
You should always seek the advice of a medical professional if you suspect that you have seasonal affective disorder or any other form of depression. Many of the symptoms are similar to those of other mental health conditions. Common signs include:
- Weight gain
- Low energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Appetite changes
- Avoiding social situations
- Arms or legs feel heavy
- Sensitivity to social rejection
The symptoms listed above are primarily related to winter depression. The summer version usually includes insomnia, poor appetite, and weight loss.
A big indicator is the appearance of symptoms during the same time every year.
What Can I Do to Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms?
It’s essential to emphasize that while you may be able to ease symptoms on your own, you should still consult a medical professional to ensure nothing else is going on. They can also monitor the condition in case it becomes unmanageable without medical intervention.
Establishing good health habits now can help you deal with his and similar problems. The following list will help you get started.
- Plan Activities That Boost Your Mood
If you know seasonal affective disorder is coming, prepare for it by planning activities that boost your mood. Make a list of things that you enjoy and make sure you do them during this time.
It could be something as simple as spending time with a friend to going for a hike, joining a club, or engaging in a hobby.
Start early and make these activities a normal part of your routine. Doing this now will make it easier to keep going when seasonal depression begins.
- Use a Dawn Simulator Device at Home
A dawn simulator makes our bodies think that the sun just came up, even if you’re waking during the dark morning hours of fall or winter.
This device is a little bigger than an alarm clock and can be placed next to your bed. Instead of playing a noise, it lights up at the time you set. The lighting gradually increases to recreate the effect of a sunrise.
The best models use full-spectrum light, which is the closest you can get to natural sun rays.
- Try Bright Light Therapy with a Light Box
You can simulate sunlight at home with a light box. Many people use bright light therapy to help cope with seasonal affective disorder symptoms. Also called phototherapy boxes, these devices use electricity to produce lighting that’s brighter than a household lightbulb.
Most people spend about 20 to 30 minutes in front of their light box per day to help balance mood-boosting chemicals in the brain. The Mayo Clinic recommends scheduling your light box session during the first hour of the day after you wake up.
Make sure you consult a medical expert before using a light box.
- Push Yourself to Participate in Social Activities
Social avoidance is a common symptom of seasonal affective disorder. Push yourself to overcome this issue by participating in social activities. Pay close attention to how often you refuse to attend events or meet with friends or family.
Even if you don’t want to, make sure you are still joining in social activities on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything you’re asked to do, but you should be careful to not develop a pattern of avoidance.
Spending time with others is a great way to boost mood.
- Have a Schedule and Stick with It All Season
Sleep patterns are affected by seasonal depression. Having a schedule will help counteract this problem. Go to sleep at the same time each evening. You can establish a ritual to help your mind and body wind down for bedtime. Do something that works for you and helps you relax.
Your schedule should also include eating meals so that you monitor food intake to avoid overeating (or undereating if you experience summer depression).
- Get Adequate Exercise to Boost Mood and Stay Fit
Exercise is a great way to boost your mood. It can also help you stay fit during seasons when many people tend to become sluggish and gain weight.
If possible, try to do exercise outside to get more sun exposure and fresh air. If weather or other factors prevent you from going outside, working out indoors is still helpful. Try to do your workout next to a window so you get a view of the outdoors and more sunshine.
- Discuss Mental Health Changes with Your Doctor
Changes in how you feel or your outlook could indicate a deeper problem. Don’t ignore the signs of depression. A good way to start is with a general check-up. Your doctor can make sure that nothing else is going on and can recommend further treatment or screenings if needed.