You know what else is a bummer? SAD.
I know that might look like the last line of a presidential tweet, but it’s actually a serious problem that affects as many as 10 million Americans, according to Psychology Today. Do you find yourself feeling more “down”, for lack of a better word, during the cold months? Are your energy levels low? Do you have problems sleeping at night? Have you lost interest in activities you normally enjoy? Do you have difficulty concentrating? Do you feel hopeless, worthless, or inexplicably guilty? Do you have frequent thoughts of death or suicide?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions—and if these effects are primarily limited to the late autumn and winter—you might suffer from seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms of this particular type of depression usually start mildly in the late fall, but they can and often do get progressively worse as winter sets in.
You might find yourself sleeping too much during the day, craving foods high in carbohydrates which leads to weight gain, and being tired or lacking in energy.
Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes SAD, but the current thinking is that it’s a combination of the reduced sunlight available in the winter months and a change in the levels of serotonin and melatonin—two chemicals that are produced by your brain and control your mood—brought on by the changes in your environment.
Sometimes, SAD will require attention from a medical professional—and in those cases you should go to the doctor and not get your medical advice from a Safety Guy on the Internet—but often it can be dealt with by making a few simple lifestyle changes.
First, make your environment sunnier. Not in a metaphorical way, literally get more sun. Open your blinds, trim back tree branches that block sunlight, and sit closer to the windows while you’re at home or in the office. A steadier dose of vitamin D might just do wonders towards improving your mental health.
Next, you’re gonna want to get outside. I know it’s hard to find the motivation to go for a jog or a hike when it’s frigid out there, but even a few minutes will help, especially if you get out within two hours of getting up in the morning.
But maybe you work nights, so you sleep during the day and can’t get that sunlight cure. I’ve been there. In that case, you can still help yourself by exercising regularly. Physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can make the symptoms of SAD worse.
Spend quality time with friends and family. Help others by volunteering or participating in community service. Eat well and avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Remember, as much as we might wish otherwise, beer is a depressant.
If these simple remedies don’t work you can try a more professional approach, starting with light therapy. You’ll sit next to a special box that emits a mimicry of natural light, which can cause your mood to improve. This usually starts working between a few days and a few weeks, so hopefully you’ll know if it’s effective pretty quickly. Talk to your doctor before you go out and buy a light therapy box, though, so you know which one is best for you and how to use it effectively.
Some SAD sufferers benefit from antidepressants. These usually work best in conjunction with psychotherapy, also called talk therapy. The meds address the chemical issues in your brain, and the therapy can help you to learn healthy ways to cope with SAD and how to manage stress.
Others find mind-body connection techniques to be effective. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, and music or art therapy are all examples of exploring the connection between the mind and the body, which can be helpful in combating SAD.
Everything I’ve talked about here has been about autumn-onset SAD, which is by far the more common of the two patterns. There’s also summer-onset SAD, which comes with its own set of problems. You can visit the Mayo Clinic’s website here for more information about both types of SAD.
If you experience any of the symptoms I described earlier year-round, you might not have seasonal affective disorder—your might be clinically depressed. That’s nothing to be ashamed of—in fact, your friendly neighborhood Safety Guy has attended sessions with therapists, and I’ve found them to be extremely helpful. Please, please, please don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Till next time, stay safe and keep warm!