Learn About Seasonal Affective Disorder

A young woman in a hat and mittens, holding a cup of coffee, outside in winter

Winter can be a joyous, cozy time. However, for the 5% to 20% of Americans who experience seasonal depression, it can feel like a long, dark slog. Symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, and intense cravings for carbohydrates can hit as the days start getting shorter, and they can range anywhere from a touch of the “winter blues” to full-on depression.

What Does SAD Look Like?

Seasonal affective disorder goes beyond simply feeling a little bit down and out of sorts. It’s a persistent disorder, and according to psychiatrist Dr. David Buch, “most folks with seasonal symptoms develop them in late fall or early winter, and they fade with the longer days starting in spring.” He continued, “SAD can also run in families, so if you have a relative with this disorder, you might be at greater risk.”

Here’s what to watch out for:

  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Craving carbohydrate-rich foods
  • Feeling more irritable
  • Feeling a lack of motivation
  • Poor concentration
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Try Some Self-Help

It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor first. If your symptoms seem mild, you can try some self-help measures and see if you feel better.

  • Go outside. Just getting out there and soaking up some natural light can lift your mood (even on a cloudy day).
  • Move more. Exercise — especially when it’s vigorous — releases endorphins, the natural chemicals that make our brains feel happier. If you’re not up to a brisk jog, don’t worry: even a simple walk can help.
  • Eat well. Aim for a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid simple carbs and sweets — they can lead to an energy crash after a few hours.
  • Stay connected. Keep up with friends and family with frequent phone calls, video chats, text messages, or whatever else works for you.
  • Take your sunshine vitamins. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies manufacture it naturally when we’re exposed to sunlight. No sunlight? No problem. Ask your doctor about taking a Vitamin D supplement.
  • Lighten up. Studies have shown full-spectrum light therapy to have a positive effect on mood.
  • Call in the experts. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it — antidepressant medications and psychotherapy can make it so much easier to cope with depression.

What if Your Symptoms Seem Severe?

If your depression is severe or if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, consult a doctor immediately or seek help at the closest emergency room. You can also access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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