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How to manage seasonal depression in the midst of colder and darker months

By Monica Athnasious

Dec 29, 2021

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When the winter period arrives, for many it is a wonderful time filled with holidays, presents and hours spent with loved ones—well, when we haven’t been in a global pandemic that is. For others however, the winter months can be an extremely hard period. One such factor that contributes to this feeling is commonly referred to as ‘seasonal depression’, also known by its official medical name, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). So, what is it and how can you help someone who’s suffering from it?

What is seasonal affective disorder or seasonal depression?

The UK-based mental health charity Mind defines SAD as a “type of depression that you experience during particular seasons or times of year. Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time, and affects your everyday life.” Such episodes most typically manifest during the months of the year where days become noticeably shorter and weather used to get colder (thank you, climate change). While some may experience it as a temporary event, studies have shown that as much as one in three people frequently battle this depression throughout autumn and winter.

The NHS made note of the symptoms that commonly occur due to such a condition, some signs include: feeling generally irritable, a low self-esteem, stress and anxiety, an incessant low mood, tearfulness, a reduced sex drive, feelings of despair and worthlessness, a tendency to become less social and difficulty in finding interest in everyday activities like hygiene. Of course, depression is not limited to the above symptoms and varies in intensity from person-to-person—with some developing thoughts of suicide.

For seasonal depression in particular, for example, other more specific symptoms can arise. These can be: changes in appetite, weight gain, intense fatigue or low energy and trouble concentrating to name a few. It can really affect your day-to-day living and is more serious than just ‘winter blues’. So, now we are a bit more clued on how to spot it, let’s take a look at the underlying causes of why it happens in the winter.

What causes seasonal depression?

While the exact cause of SAD has yet to be verified and backed by scientific study—likely due to its complex and multifaceted nature—there are some suspected theories that are thought to contribute to the disorder. Since it occurs most often during the months of winter, light, or lack thereof, is thought to be a major player.

Healthline stated, “One theory is that decreased sunlight exposure affects the natural biological clock that regulates hormones, sleep and moods. Another theory is that light-dependent brain chemicals are more greatly affected in those with SAD.” It must be noted that these are just some of the ideas behind why light alone could be a large contributing factor—the theories are endless.

The American Psychiatric Association, for example, has suggested that those living furthest from the equator are at a higher risk of developing the disorder and have linked SAD to a biochemical imbalance brought about by a shift in a person’s biological clock—causing a misalignment with their typical schedule. If you find yourself relating to the content, fear not, there are some steps you can take to help manage SAD.

How to manage seasonal depression?

It goes without saying that the symptoms you may be experiencing should be relayed to a medical professional. As SAD is part of the spectrum that is depression, it is vital to have it examined and correctly diagnosed by the relevant mental health expert. Doctor Deborah Pierce, MD, from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, New York told Everyday Health, “There are a number of screening questions that can help determine if someone is depressed… Your doctor will be able to sort out whether you have SAD as opposed to some other form of depression.”

Following diagnosis, there may be opportunities to pursue treatments via your health professional. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) suggested that the condition is adequately treated by the same methods used for alternative forms of depression. This includes, but is not limited to, medicines like antidepressants, forms of traditional therapies as well as CBT, counselling and even light therapy.

Light therapy

Light therapy is an emerging method being investigated into its effectiveness of treating SAD—as of now, its capability as a standalone treatment is incredibly inconsistent. Overall, the NHS pointed out that although there is mixed evidence, some studies have shown it can be useful—especially when used in the morning. Light therapy usually involves a lamp or light box that a patient would sit with from 30 minutes to an hour every morning.

Though varying in design, such light therapy tools typically produce a very bright light that is supposed to simulate sunlight that is limited for many during the winter. “It’s thought the light may improve SAD by encouraging your brain to reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy) and increase the production of serotonin (a hormone that affects your mood),” the NHS wrote. The treatment is however not usually available via the NHS, it’s best to speak to your doctor if you wish to try it.

How to manage seasonal depression from home

If you find that there is a lack of accessibility to therapies or that you’re struggling to get a diagnosis, there are some things you can do yourself to assist in the alleviation of your symptoms. While having a light box or a dawn simulator—an alarm clock that wakes you up with ‘sunlight’—sounds convenient, there’s another really easy way to get light. Go outside.

According to one study cited by The Conversation, going for a daily one-hour walk outside showed a substantial improvement in all symptoms as opposed to those in the study who just had artificial light. The advice across the web is to get outside as much as you possibly can—especially the times of day when the sun is at its brightest. This usually falls around noon. If you are unable to get outside or work remotely, keep your curtains open and choose a working station closest to the natural light if possible. Try to exercise or do some kind of movement activity regularly.

Trying to do the above with others could be a two-birds-one stone solution. Try to find ways to stay connected with the people around you and refrain from excessive social isolation—hard to do in a pandemic, I know. Despite the need to stay indoors because of COVID-19, it is important to find alternative ways to socialise. “When the winter weather makes it super cold to be outside or unsafe to drive, we can FaceTime with friends and extended family members or set up Zoom calls with them,” said psychologist Kim Burgess, PhD.

These are just a few simple ways to manage the symptoms, but the list is endless. Other things to watch out for or implement are: healing nutritional deficiencies like Vitamin D, journaling, taking a trip and creating a simple schedule or routine. And remember, your mental and emotional health are just as important as your physical health. So take care of those too.