How to Cope with Seasonal Depression

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is commonly referred to as seasonal depression, which usually occurs during cold, dark winter months each year. When you experience seasonal depression, symptoms can include an unexplained feeling of fatigue as daylight hours are reduced.

Key takeaways:
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    Season depression occurs in the winter months when it is cold and dark outside resulting in less exposure to natural sunlight.
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    Anyone can suffer from seasonal depression, although not everyone does.
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    Symptoms can mimic traditional depression, including lack of interest in usually pleasurable activities, low mood, and fatigue.
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    The cause is usually associated with abnormal levels of brain chemicals.
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    There are numerous treatment options: Special light therapy, traditional talk therapy, and prescribed medications to be used as advised by a medical professional.

In most cases, when spring arrives and the days begin to lengthen, seasonal depression symptoms will begin to fade, due to increased exposure to natural sunlight.

What is seasonal depression?

When you experience seasonal depression, your symptoms are triggered by how your brain reacts to reduced exposure to daylight during the long winter months, which impacts how your brain produces two essential chemicals related to emotion: melatonin and serotonin. These naturally occurring chemicals help regulate the body's sleep-wake cycles, mood, and energy levels, which are disrupted during short days when the sun sets early. Reduced serotonin and increased melatonin levels create the perfect combination for you to feel increasingly depressed during night time hours. You are not alone.

What are the common symptoms of seasonal depression?

The symptoms you may experience with this diagnosis are similar to other types of so-called classic depression; however, these maladies do not manifest in the same manner. In other words, changes in your mood will occur in a more predictable and "seasonal" pattern. Some of the most common symptoms are listed below:

1. Lack of enjoyment

When someone experiences seasonal depression, they may lose interest in the hobbies and activities they once enjoyed. They may also struggle to enjoy social events and spend time with friends. When you have seasonal affective disorder, you may feel you can no longer accomplish certain tasks to the level you "usually” can.

2. Reduced energy and changes in sleeping patterns

Reduced energy and unexplained exhaustion are two other common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Lack of energy and fatigue may be caused by reductions in serotonin and increased melatonin production due to changes in seasons and reduced daylight hours. During the winter, many people leave for work and return home when it is dark outside. A pattern of continually functioning without daylight can make sleeping on a regular schedule challenging.

3. Changes in your diet

Changes in diet related to seasonal depression may include increased cravings for simple carbohydrates such as sugary foods and "comfort foods." These changes in eating habits often lead to weight gain during winter. Depending on the individual, this can cause or worsen feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction with their appearance.

4. Problems concentrating

In addition to increased feelings of fatigue and lethargy, seasonal depression can cause difficulties with concentration. This, too, can interfere with your performance and ability to accomplish daily tasks and obligations.

Who Experiences Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal depression can affect anyone regardless of gender or age. The number of people who experience seasonal depression each year often varies from region to region. Cases generally increase in areas with more days with fewer hours of sunlight, but it is important to mention that seasonal depression does not affect everyone in a particular area. Studies suggest that 6 out of every 100 people experience symptoms in a year. Like other forms of depression, seasonal depression is generally more common in women than men and those with a family history of depressive disorders. Individual factors such as biology, brain chemistry, life experiences, and one's surrounding environment may also play a role.

How is seasonal depression treated?

With a proper diagnosis, there are several possible treatment options, depending on your individual needs. For example, light therapy or phototherapy may be used to ease your symptoms. Light therapy involves using a special light that simulates natural daylight. Your provider will instruct you to sit in front of this type of lighting daily for a predetermined amount of time. For most people who utilize light therapy, symptoms often begin to improve within a few days to a few weeks. As the seasons change and enough natural light is available outside, it is advisable to get outdoors as much as possible.

Note: it is important to mention that light therapy is a medical intervention and should only be used under the supervision of a medical provider. There are some instances, such as pre-existing medical conditions, where light therapy is contraindicated (not recommended).

Another treatment is psychotherapy or ‘talk’ therapy. Explaining your feelings with a licensed practitioner may encourage you to address and examine any negative thought patterns you experience in order to change, or reframe them, in a positive way. Talk therapy can also help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness that often accompany seasonal depression.

One of the most common talk therapy models is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Depending on your comfort level and particular treatment needs, these sessions can be held in group or individual settings. CBT can also help you learn more about your symptoms, which can result in better understanding your condition, and what you can do to reduce or even prevent the occurrence of seasonal symptoms in the future.

In addition, depending on your specific treatment plan your mental health provider may prescribe medications to help alleviate some of the common symptoms related to seasonal depression. Antidepressant medications may help regulate the balance of Serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that affect your mood and energy levels.

While helpful in some cases, mental health and/or drug therapy are not ideal for everyone, so it is important to discuss your existing medical conditions and any medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) you currently take with your provider before starting a new medication. While antidepressants may help alleviate or reduce the intensity of all, or some of your symptoms, remember they are not a "cure" for your condition, and should not be used as a long-term substitute for mental health treatment.

When you first notice symptoms of seasonal depression, you may naturally wonder what is wrong with you, and your abnormal decreased mood may confuse not only you, but your friends and family as well. If you have never experienced any type of depression before, it is natural to wonder why you feel down, which can result in added stress and worry as you search for answers. Although seasonal depression can affect anyone, treatment is available. With help and support, it is possible to overcome your symptoms.

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