Seasonal Affective Disorder
Written by Michele Dial, LPC
I love all things summer. Long, hot days with seemingly endless sunshine. Swimming. Vacations. Staycations. Outdoor sports. Beach days. Watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, pineapple. The list goes on. The only two things I don’t love about summer are mosquitos and the end of my favorite season. As the sun starts setting earlier and the temperature drops, so does my mood. This dreary, rainy Tuesday, I’m really feeling it. I’m sad about the fleeting warmth, the last swim of the season, my summer projects I didn’t quite finish. The end of summer always leaves me wanting more. Before we know it, the mild 60-70° temperatures fade into freezing and the sky will be dark by the time we hit afternoon rush-hour. I miss summer just thinking about it.
In Texas and throughout the south really, I’m the oddball. Most folks are breaking out their Uggs and Thanksgiving cornucopia, and ordering up their pumpkin spice lattes, all the while rejoicing in the cool, crisp weather. But for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the perks of fall are often overshadowed by the darkness of seasonal depression. SAD is a sub-category of clinical depression and is characterized by many of the same symptoms of depression.
- Sluggishness, Low energy
- Excessive sleep
- Social withdrawal (hibernation)
- Agitation or irritability
- Increased appetite or comfort eating
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
By contrast, snowbirds thrive in fall and winter. Although far more rare, these individuals may find themselves feeling the impact of SAD during spring and summer months. The symptoms vary slightly and include:
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
Causes of SAD
The most prevalent form of SAD has its onset in the fall and typically continues through the winter months. Research shows a connection between reduced sunlight and SAD because sunlight is a major source of Vitamin D, which boosts serotonin in our brains. With less sunlight, our vitamin D levels drop and our serotonin follows. The brain chemical serotonin is a major player in mood fluctuations. Increased serotonin uplifts mood, while decreases in serotonin can trigger depression. Melatonin is another biological factor in depressive symptoms. Melatonin is a hormone produced by our brains that regulates sleep cycles. Our brains naturally produce more melatonin in darkness, so with more dark hours than light, the desire or need to sleep increases.
So what can we do?
While more severe cases of SAD may warrant antidepressant medication and phototherapy or bright light therapy, there are several tangible strategies for battling depressive symptoms well within our reach.
Physical Activity ~ When we exercise our brains release endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. These feel-good chemicals are produced naturally and work together to boost feelings of happiness, joy and contentment.
Gratitude ~ It’s easy to get caught up in negative emotions sometimes. Making a mental or written list of all the reasons we have to be grateful can override negativity and put a smile your face as you walk through all the good things that bring you joy.
Anticipation / Hope ~ Having something to look forward to can lift your spirits exponentially. Despite cold, dark weather, many people look forward to football overload, holidays with family and friends, and maybe even a snowball fight. As much as I love summer, I equally love Christmas, so I eventually let go of my nostalgia for summer and embrace the holiday season.
Socializing ~ Fighting the urge to hibernate can be a daunting task, but it can be done. If you really don’t want to leave the house, consider having friends over for soup and game night. Being around people is one of the most critical antidotes to depression.
Shift Your Focus ~ I am always sad to see summer end, but there are things I love about fall. I root on my Longhorns on the football field, savor gingerbread lattes, and make homemade chili to keep us warm and cozy. Conscious effort to shift my focus to what I enjoy about the various seasons makes letting go of summer a little easier.
Finding beauty in the world ~ If you’re lucky enough to live a region where the leaves change colors, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. The holiday season is also a time of giving and human kindness toward one another, which a different kind of beauty worth celebrating. When we look up and look around, we can find beauty in our everyday lives.
Therapy ~ Having an objective person listen your feelings without telling you you’re crazy is always helpful. A supportive therapist can help you walk through these emotions with support and dignity, and cheer you on as you take steps toward improving your mental health and your outlook on life.
If you’re like me and the winter blues are starting set in, don’t let the feelings of melancholy and despondence take over. Suit up in your favorite sweater and boots, and face this depression before it becomes debilitating. Grab a friend or family member and visit a pumpkin farm or a coffee shop. Go for a walk or run without sweating (too much) for a change, and when the freeze hits, try indoor rock climbing or a gym class to get your body moving and your blood flowing. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel overwhelmed or under-motivated. There is no shame in needing support. Humans are built for connection and community, so take advantage of the humans in your life, both personal and professional.
Michele is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Heights Family Counseling who specializes in strengths based counseling with teens, adults, and couples. Her goal is to help you spot and deconstruct unhealthy patterns of responding to them (such as withdrawal, escapism, eruptions, etc.) and develop new, more satisfying ways of approaching life, love, and livelihood. Book an appointment with Michele by going to https://heightsfamilycounseling.com/contact/ and read more about her counseling style at https://heightsfamilycounseling.com/amy-rollo/