Seasonal depression, more medically known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can be defined as “depression or depressive episodes that happen during specific times a year, primarily in the fall and winter,” according to Dr. Steven Powell, psychiatrist for telehealth platform Hims & Hers.
Sydney Daniello from Arlington, Virginia, started bracing for SAD back in September. The 23-year-old has been dealing with “significant changes” to her mood around this time of year since her early teens, even before she knew what seasonal depression was.
In addition to mood changes, she also notices behavioral changes.
“As it starts to actually hit me, it’s hard to not isolate,” she explains. “It’s harder to just get to the grocery store.”
The crash people experience after the peak of holiday cheer or following an exciting vacation is the low she feels just getting into the holiday months.
“You’re having a really great time during spring and summer and then as the fall starts to set in, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s over.’ And it just feels disappointing,” she explains. “Everything becomes a little bit duller.”
Seasonal affective disorder mimics the symptoms of depression, Powell explains.
“So people will have the classic symptoms including low energy, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, people feel sluggish or agitated or sleepy, they will oversleep,” he says. “Oftentimes, hopelessness and even thoughts of self harm, all come into play.”
People with SAD may also have have difficulty concentrating and experience increased stress and anxiety, adds Dr. Seema Bonney, functional medicine doctor and founder of the Anti-Aging and Longevity Center of Philadelphia.
Lexi King, 27, says she’s usually fond of sitting in the sun in her town of Battle Creek, Michigan, but SAD is “always in the back of my mind,” especially as fall comes around.
“Knowing it is right around the corner makes me search (for) the sun more than normal,” she says, adding she tries to find sunny spots in her house or eat lunch outside before the “very grey” Michigan winter sets in.
She describes SAD as “depression but with a cold twist.”
“I have a lack of motivation and I go to bed early since the sun is down before 6 p.m. When it’s cold and dark after work I will go home, shower and put on my pajamas. I rarely leave the house once I’m home,” she says. “It feels like I drop off the face of the earth for three or so months.”
Others bracing for SAD, or already dealing with it, have taken to social media to lament the impending winter blues.
“I’m not even gonna try to fight off the seasonal depression this year. Darkness, it’s me. come get your girl,” user @xanabon tweeted.
“I really want to encourage everyone to focus on their mental health this month bc that seasonal depression comes like a thief in the night (for real),” user @whitd_ says.
Strategies to prevent SAD
Luckily, there are some things you can do to prevent SAD if you’re bracing for it.
The best way to prevent it is to prepare for it, says Powell.
“If you know that you’re prone to this, preparing to make sure that you find ways to get as much outdoor exposure as you can will be very important,” he says.
Daniello says making plans ahead of time is vital in keeping her SAD at bay.
“I go out of my way to like make sure that I am leaving my house every day. I plan to go into the office, I plan to see friends (and my) boyfriend,” she says, explaining she also turns “normal events” like watching TV into a more special occasion by turning it into a movie night she can look forward to, for example.
“It feels different from just the average day to day stuff – something to sort of create joy, because it’s a lot harder. I don’t just wake up filled with joy anymore,” she says.
Making plans to look forward to aren’t reserved for only weekends either.
“I make sure that I’m treating every day as a day that’s possible to experience happiness, because it gets dark so early that it would be really easy to just go home and do nothing until the weekends,” she says. “I can use… the momentum from one thing to sort of get me to the next one.”
As a program associate at Mental Health America, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va., Daniello says it also helps to have people surrounding her that are supportive and knowledgeable.
“We can all share our strategies,” she says. “Sharing those things with other people helps hold myself accountable to actually doing them, (and) it’s a really great way to not feel so alone in it.”
King says she also relies on her friends to “get me out of the house on occasion.”
Getting consistent sunlight is also important in prevention, says Bonney, since reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin levels, a natural mood stabilizer, which can be associated with SAD.
“Try to get outside during the day to boost serotonin levels,” she suggests, and support the circadian rhythm, our internal body clock, by getting morning sunlight specifically.
Other ways to get a natural mood boost? Exercise, which produces “feel-good endorphins,” Bonney explains.
Eating well is also important. She suggests including foods in your diet that are “rich in tryptophan, which helps boosts serotonin. These foods include eggs, turkey, pineapple, cheese, tofu, salmon and nuts.”
Light therapy can also help regulate serotonin and melatonin, a sleep hormone, and help regulate your body’s internal clock, Bonney says.
“Light therapy tends to be most effective in the morning. Use a 10,000 lux bulb for 30 minutes every morning,” she says.
You can also get help through therapy.
“Treatments like psychotherapy itself also are about prevention so that, the tricks you use from there, from relaxation and meditation, all can sort of help to prepare yourself to deal with that transition and change,” Powell adds.
What else can you do if you struggle with seasonal depression?
“In general those afflicted with SAD may want to prepare in advance, plan for mood boosting activities in the winter months, join a club, sign up for regular activities, volunteer, develop good exercise habits and incorporate walks with friends,” Bonney says.
But if SAD has already got you feeling down, there are also ways to cope, including consulting with a physician regarding specific symptoms and treatment options.
“If your symptoms are severe your physician may recommend anti-depressants or other treatment options,” Bonney says.
Treatments can include medication or prescribed light boxes, Powell adds.
Otherwise, anything that can make your environment have more sun is beneficial.
“Opening the blinds, sitting closer to the windows, moving your desk next to a window. All of that exposure can be very helpful,” he says. “Getting outside is absolutely helpful. So anything you can do, whether it’s eating lunch at a park or going on walks… that extra sunlight can make a big difference.”