During winter, you might feel like trading healthy habits for snuggling up under a cozy blanket with a warm mug of tea.
It’s not abnormal to feel a little sluggish or less energetic because not everyone wants to lace up their sneakers and run in the freezing rain. But what if what you’re actually with seasonal affective disorder?
Some people experience a mood shift much harder to shake off than the so-called “winter blues,” explains Chicago-based therapist Kelley Kitley, LCSW.
Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that comes and goes with the season.
Shining a light on what it is — and what it isn’t — is essential for people with SAD.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder
“Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder,” explains Kitley. “It’s a form of depression.”
The DSM-5, which therapists use to make diagnoses, classifies SAD as a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern.
“People qualify if they’ve had symptoms for two weeks or more,” she says. “In most people, it tends to improve in spring.”
In contrast to feeling a bit bummed about a dreary day, someone with SAD will have symptoms associated with depression, which may include:
- feelings of guilt
- a loss of interest in activities
What Causes SAD?
SAD is not a result of gloomy weather but rather exposure to less sunlight and how it affects hormone fluctuations and productions in our bodies.
In the Northern Hemisphere, sunlight hours start waning in fall, and the shortest day of the year arrives on the winter solstice around December 21.
“Changes in sunlight disrupt our internal clock or circadian rhythms,” explains licensed psychologist, Adrienne Meier, Ph.D.
Studies have found people who live far from the equator, individuals with a family history of depression, bipolar disorder, and women are more likely to experience SAD.
“In general, women are more susceptible because they have more fluctuations in hormones during all phases of life, such as monthly cycles,” explains Meier.
Getting less exercise because it’s cold out or getting dark early can also exacerbate seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
Here are some common seasonal affective disorder symptoms:
1. Feeling sad or down
One option for treating SAD is light therapy, according to studies.
“These happy lights can help,” says Kitley. Individuals experiencing SAD typically use this type of light in the morning for around a half-hour to 45 minutes during months of diminished sunlight.
2. Having less energy
Fatigue is another common symptom of SAD, according to Meier and Kitley. You may sleep more but not feel well-rested.
It’s a sense of feeling tired all the time and not knowing why, which can impact other areas of your life, such as work or exercise.
3. Changes in appetite
“People experiencing SAD may crave more carbs and notice weight gain,” says Meier.
Carb cravings increase on shorter days because many of our favorite comfort foods help boost serotonin, a hormone naturally elevated on sunny days, but in short supply when it’s cloudy.
Instead of getting into a cycle of sugar highs and lows, better snack alternatives include a comforting bowl of warm steel-cut oatmeal, nuts, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
4. Disruptions to healthy sleep
Perhaps you wake up feeling hungover even though you haven’t had anything to drink, or tossed and turned all night, or you slept more than you usually do and still feel exhausted. SAD can throw off your sleep cycle.
5. Hopelessness or guilt
One treatment for SAD is talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) because some people feel a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilty.
“Talk therapy helps shift and balance our thinking,” explains Meier. “Negative thinking feels like it hijacks our brains to see things as worse than they really are.”
Even someone with an ordinarily sunny personality can become grumpy when they’re experiencing seasonal affective disorder.
Other changes may include having trouble concentrating or nervous habits, such as pacing.
7. Loss of interest in activities
Not excited for your favorite yoga class or can’t motivate yourself to join a HIIT sesh? Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed is a common symptom of seasonal affective disorder.
You may also withdraw from friends and family.
While it’s hard to get moving with SAD, working out can help, according to Kitley. “Exercise is such a mood changer because it releases endorphins. Elevating your heart rate brings up your mood and even going out for a walk helps get you out of your mind.”
Seasonal Affective Disorder Treatments
If you’re experiencing SAD, it’s important to reach out to a medical professional, therapist, or psychiatrist, who can provide suggestions for therapy or speak to friends and family about your concerns.
Therapy with seasonal affective disorder lights, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychopharmacological therapy, or medications to treat depression, are some seasonal affective disorder treatments.
Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel for SAD — and you don’t have to wait until spring to feel like yourself again.