Seasonal Affective Disorder: What is it and how to respond to it?
Many of us have heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and even more of us have experienced some of the symptoms, such as decreased energy, weight gain, or difficulty sleeping during the winter months. While SAD is referred to in a number of different ways, colloquially as "the winter blues" and more formally as "Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern," the truth is that for folks who experience SAD the symptoms are very real and painful. So what is SAD and what can we do to help manage the symptoms?
Season Affective Disorder is a shift toward more depressed mood that coincides with a change in the seasons. Typically, depressive symptoms begin to intensify in late fall and start to lift in the mid to late spring. As a psychologist practicing in Boston, SAD is of particular interest. 9% of folks living in New England struggle to manage symptoms of SAD, compared with only 1% of folks residing in Florida (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml).
There are a number of recommended treatments to address the symptoms of SAD, such as medication, including both antidepressants and Vitamin D supplements, or the use of light therapy. There are also some small things each of us can do to help our bodies to manage the decrease in daylight, cloudy days, and frigid temperatures (as I write this, the midwestern states are experiencing record cold temperatures and they are headed to Boston!) associated with winter in New England.
1: Get Outside
This might seem counterintuitive given my above reference to the polar vortex, but it is true. On days when the temperature is safe to be outdoors and especially when the sun is shining, GET OUTSIDE! Exposing your body to fresh air and sunshine is helpful to improving mood. You don't need to hit the slopes or go on a snowshoe adventure either (though each of those do sound enticing). Consider a lunchtime walk on sunny days, getting off the train a stop early, or parking a bit further from your office. Whatever it is, make an effort to spend some time outside and away from the recycled air of the indoors.
Move move move! Get your body going and stay active. While the symptoms of SAD may make you feel like staying in bed and binge-watching the latest Netflix series is all you are capable of, the truth is that moving your body can help improve mood. Consider options with added benefits, such as a yoga class (think warm, humid, sweaty room), which provides your body a break from the bitter cold and a chance to move and stretch your muscles in a way that balances the tension of bundling up and hunching over in an effort to stay warm. Whether you try something new or go back to an old favorite, find a way to get your body moving.
When it is dark outside at 4pm it is easy to get in the habit of going to work or school and then going straight home and into cozy pajamas. While there technically isn't anything wrong with this option, our decreased motivation that often accompanies decreased daylight means that we limit our opportunities to socialize and connect with others. Try making plans to meet with friends for lunch or grab a quick dinner after work. Commit to volunteering a few times a month (a little bit of social pressure can go a long way!). Whatever it is, make time to connect with others, social isolation will only serve to maintain your more depressed affect.
Consider creating a space for yourself to talk and feel supported and cared for. The symptoms of SAD are real and talking with a trained professional can help you to generate ideas about what might be helpful, hold yourself accountable to self-care practices, and identify if further intervention is needed.