Does Your Mental Health Worsen with the Winter Months?
By Vanessa Gonzalez
The holiday season is upon us once again. Tis’ the time to be with family, build gingerbread houses and sip on some hot cocoa. While it doesn’t get very cold in Florida, the sweltering heat subsides to give us a nice cool break to bust out our sweaters, and for some, coats.
Yet, while the holidays are meant to be filled with joyous season’s greetings, they also present challenges for some people. If you find yourself feeling down during the winter season, you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? (SAD)
According to the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that can also be referred to as seasonal depression or winter depression. However, it can occur at any time. Clinically speaking, it’s identified as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern. Individuals with SAD typically experience saddened mood and symptoms similar to depression, typically during the fall and winter months. Less commonly, people experience SAD in the summer.
The American Psychiatric Association informs us that symptoms can be mild or severe and share many diagnostic criteria with depression. Some symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of enjoyment or lack of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Weight gain or loss due to changes in appetite
- Changes in sleeping patterns – usually increased sleeping
- Lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
- Difficulty focusing or thinking
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
SAD symptoms can begin at any age but is usually diagnosed within the ages of 18 and 30. However, to better understand your own experiences, speak with a doctor or a mental health provider.
What are the Causes of SAD?
Despite previous research, there is no proven cause of SAD. However, some known factors influence its onset.
- A change in your biological clock. The start of the winter months also means a change in the level of sunlight during the day. The reduced sunlight may cause the onset of SAD and disrupt the body’s internal biological clock which leads to depressive symptomology.
- Lower Serotonin levels. Those with SAD experience a chemical imbalance in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. So, the reduced sunlight may lower serotonin levels, leading to depression.
- Lower Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the secretion of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that plays a huge role in sleep and responds to darkness. The increased darkness may produce higher melatonin levels, which increases sleep patterns.
How to Manage SAD
While the symptoms will subside by the end of the season, there are some ways to manage the emotions and treat them more quickly.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. A CBT therapist can help you learn how your thoughts influence your actions. This talk therapy has been proven to challenge the negative thoughts associated with SAD and helps them identify activities to help them feel better.
- Engage in Light Therapy. Studies have proven the effectiveness of light therapy in conjunction with CBT. To contradict the decreased sunlight, light therapy is meant to simulate natural sunlight.
- Spend Time Outdoors. Finding some time each day to increase exposure to natural sunlight can be very helpful for managing SAD.
If you feel there is another medical condition present, or you need more help managing your symptoms, contact your health care provider or a mental health professional.
If you have thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or others, or feel that life is no longer worth living, seek immediate medical attention or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
American Psychological Association. (2014, December 15). Seasonal affective disorder.http://www.apa.org/topics/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Press.