Identifying & Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Winter can be a hard time of year for many people. Between the cold, dreary weather and the sun setting before the end of the workday, it is no surprise that more people find themselves suffering from low spirits in the winter than any other time of the year. For some people, the wintertime blues are more serious than others. Often, these people actually suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Winter Blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder?

There is a big difference between suffering from a case of winter blues and SAD. Many people find the winter blues kick in after the holidays are over when they feel the next exciting thing to look forward isn’t until spring. People with the winter blues often feel cranky over normal problems associated with winter, like having to brave the cold winter air to get to the car. Feeling a little gloomy when you have to scrape ice off your windshield is normal. Wanting to hurry home to do nothing but wrap up in a blanket and rest after work can also be normal. Even wanting to fast forward several months to spring is fairly normal, but if you find that you can still find joy in various activities, hobbies, or social events, you probably aren’t suffering from SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is characterized by depression that is related to the changes in season(1). SAD can occur in the Spring/Summer or in the Fall/Winter. Since we are currently headed into winter, we are going to focus on Fall/Winter SAD. For many people with SAD, they find that it begins and ends at about the same time year after year. It can make it hard for people to continue functioning in their daily lives.

Other Symptoms of SAD (2)

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day starting with the change of weather
  • Having unusually low energy
  • Overeating
  • Changes in appetite (especially craving carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities or hobbies
  • Feeling sleepier and more lethargic than normal
  • Hypersomnia
  • Changes in sleep pattern (such as staying up very late and sleeping through the day)

Risk Factors

There are risk factors for SAD, but not everyone with SAD falls into these categories. The risk factors include: 

  • Being female. Women are diagnosed 4 times as often as men.
  • Living far from the equator. This is believed to be due to the colder weather and fewer hours of sunshine those further from the equator experience more drastically than those closer to the equator.
  • Having a family history of depression. People with a family history of any type of depression are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than those without a family history of depression.
  • Already having depression or bipolar disorder. Though many people with depression or bipolar disorder experience an increase in their symptoms in the winter months, it is only characterized as Seasonal Affective Disorder if the seasonal depression is the most prevalent.
  • Younger age. Typically, SAD is diagnosed more frequently in young adults and teens. Young children have also been known to suffer from SAD.

Treatment Options

Despite the hopelessness that often permeates with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are many treatment options that can help. There is no reason for you to suffer or tough it out until spring. If SAD is making it hard to function in your daily life or is creating thoughts of suicide or self-harm, it is time to reach out to friends or family, and a medical professional. You are important and you deserve support and treatment.

  1. Vitamin D: Often the first treatment people try for seasonal depression is vitamin D. With the short hours of sunlight, the desire to avoid being out in the cold, and the layers of long clothing, getting enough vitamin D from sun exposure is nearly impossible in the winter. More research needs to be done on vitamin D supplementation as a treatment for SAD, but there is some evidence to suggest it can be beneficial for some people(3).

  2. Medication: Just like other forms of depression, there are many medications to treat SAD. A qualified doctor can help you find the right prescription and dosage for you. There is absolutely no shame in taking medication to live your best life.

  3. Light therapy(4): Light therapy is another treatment option. It is as simple as sitting in front of a special light every morning that is meant to mimic natural daylight. These lights can even be purchased online, but you do need to do your research to make sure you are getting the real deal. It is also important to note that tanning beds do not provide the same benefits as light therapy and due to the damage UV lights can do, tanning beds should not be used as a treatment for SAD. 

    Because there are very few possible side effects from light therapy, it can be used in conjunction with medications or can be an option for people who cannot use medications for a variety of reasons. You might find that this treatment is best done with the supervision of a doctor who can make suggestions on the frequency, intensity, and duration of light exposure. A doctor can also help you avoid making mistakes that could increase your chances of eye strain, headaches, and other possible side effects.

  4. Aromatherapy: Aromatherapy is a growing field for treating a variety of ailments, especially depression. Though more research needs to be done, there is significant evidence to suggest that it could be a valuable treatment tool that could be used on its own or in conjunction with medication to alleviate the thoughts, feelings, and other symptoms associated with depression(5). Sandalwood, for example, is an essential oil known for its properties that can enhance mood, reduce tension, promote well-being, and ground emotions. Melissa is another essential oil that might help. Melissa contains antidepressant properties and may create a feeling of peace. 

There is Hope

Most people find that it takes more than a day for whatever treatment they choose to kick in. Even on the best treatment plan, there can still be hard days now and then. We recommend that anyone who suffers from anxiety or any form of depression try keeping our Hope Cream on hand. Our Hope blend is appropriately named after the goal we had in mind while creating it; to bring a sense of hope to those suffering from pain, anxiety, and/or depression. Sandalwood and Melissa essential oils, mentioned above, are just two of the essential oils carefully chosen for this blend. Lavender, Tangerine, and Ylang Ylang are also in Hope to help promote a calm, yet energized feel that could be powerful when fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder.