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4 Ways to Treat Seasonal Depression

**Disclaimer: This blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice or professional services. The information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, and those seeking personal medical advice should consult with a licensed physician. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health provider regarding a medical condition.

Seasonal depression, a shadow often trailing the brighter days of summer, is an unwelcome guest for many people. This phenomenon, more formally known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), brings with it a unique set of challenges, affecting our emotional well-being in a way that's tightly intertwined with the rhythm of the seasons.

It's important to remember that as much as it may feel like an isolating experience, you're not alone. Countless individuals navigate through this same seasonal shift, and there are many ways to brighten these darker days. Let's explore some ways to treat seasonal depression so you can regain control of your mood and enjoy life, regardless of the season.

What is Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal Depression, more widely recognized as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is a mood disorder that typically flares up at certain times of the year. Most often, it occurs during the winter months, often referred to as 'winter depression' or the 'winter blues,' (a stark contrast to 'summer depression,' which is another less common phenomenon).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is one of the mental health conditions that bring a significant alteration in one's mood, energy, and overall outlook, aligning almost poetically with nature's retreat into winter hibernation.

Risk Factors

Those who have a family history of SAD tend to be at higher risk of getting it themselves. Other risk factors include a current or former diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and not getting enough Vitamin D. Those who live further from the equator are also more likely to experience SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) vs. Major Depressive Disorder vs. Bipolar Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder share common symptoms such as persistent low mood, loss of interest in activities, and changes in sleep and appetite. However, SAD is unique due to its timing, typically beginning in early winter and ending in early spring, with symptoms appearing and receding at about the same times during a specific season. In contrast, major depression can happen any time and isn't seasonally linked, distinguishing the two in terms of duration and occurrence.

Bipolar Disorder, while also involving depressive symptoms, includes phases of mania or hypomania, characterized by increased energy and mood elevation. It may show a seasonal pattern, with manic episodes possibly in spring/summer and depressive episodes in fall/winter, but this isn't as consistent as with SAD.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

man laying in bed with a sad look on his face

Only a healthcare provider such as a therapist or psychiatrist can diagnose Seasonal Affective Disorder, but understanding its symptoms is crucial in recognizing warning signs in ourselves or our loved ones.

  • Feeling Down Most of the Day, Nearly Every Day: This is one of the hallmark SAD symptoms. But unlike "normal" winter blues, it's more than just feeling a little sad here and there; it's a persistent heaviness that clouds your days and keeps you from functioning properly.

  • Losing Interest in Activities: Activities that used to bring joy, like painting or hiking, may no longer appeal. This loss of interest is a significant sign that SAD might be at play.

  • Weight Gain or Changes in Appetite: Some might experience a decreased appetite, while others might find themselves eating more and experiencing weight gain. This shift in eating habits can be a reaction to the mood changes brought on by SAD.

  • Sleep Problems: Alterations in sleep patterns are common with SAD, as seasonal changes result in less sunlight, which helps regulate our body's internal clock. You might find yourself sleeping excessively, yet still feeling tired, or you may have trouble sleeping, tossing and turning through the long winter nights.

  • Feeling Sluggish or Agitated: SAD can make you feel lethargic, as if you're moving through life in slow motion. Alternatively, you might feel unusually agitated or restless.

  • Feeling Hopeless, Worthless, or Guilty: These feelings can be overwhelming, adding to the emotional burden of SAD. Negative thoughts might take a front seat, further exacerbating the situation.

  • Having Difficulty Concentrating: You might notice that focusing on tasks becomes more challenging, as if your cognitive abilities are dulled or distracted by the overarching mood changes.

  • Thoughts of Death or Suicide: The most serious symptom of SAD is having thoughts about death or suicide. This is a clear indicator that immediate professional help is needed.

Recognizing these symptoms as they relate to seasonal patterns can help us understand and address SAD.

How to Treat Seasonal Depression

How is SAD treated? The approach is as multifaceted as the condition itself. A combination of medication, talk therapy, and lifestyle changes work for many people.

Consult With a Mental Health Professional

First and foremost, consulting with your healthcare provider is an essential step in addressing Seasonal Affective Disorder. They're skilled in distinguishing SAD from major depression and other mood disorders to create a personalized treatment plan. A mental health professional will do a thorough evaluation and assess your symptoms to diagnose SAD or another condition accurately.

Treatment options may include talk therapy techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), might also be suggested to manage SAD and prevent depressive episodes.

Self-Care Activities to Treat Seasonal Depression

1. Get Some Exercise

three men running in the winter

Regular physical activity is not only beneficial for physical health; it's also a powerful tool to treat SAD. Exercise has a remarkable ability to relieve symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder. When you exercise regularly, your body releases endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural mood lifters. This can be particularly helpful in combating the low moods often associated with SAD.

Exercising outdoors can be doubly beneficial. The natural sunlight you're exposed to while running in the park or taking a brisk walk can help boost your vitamin D levels and lessen symptoms of SAD. Vitamin D has been linked to mood regulation, and lower levels are often associated with depression. So, not only are you getting the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise, but you're also soaking up some sunlight, which can be scarce during the winter months.

2. Use a Light Therapy Lamp

a man using a light therapy lamp

Light therapy, or bright light therapy, is a popular method to address symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. It's especially useful during the less sunny late fall and winter months. Light therapy lamps, or light boxes, emits bright light resembling natural outdoor light, simulating a sunny environment indoors.

This therapy is effective in reducing SAD symptoms by influencing brain chemicals related to mood and sleep, helping to adjust disrupted circadian rhythms in winter. For best results, start using the light box a few weeks before the days start getting shorter (around the time SAD begins for many people). It's recommended to use the light box for 10-30 minutes each morning. Start with just 10 minutes of light therapy work each day and increase slowly as needed.

While light therapy is a potent tool against SAD, it's important to consult a healthcare professional to tailor the therapy to your individual needs and maximize its benefits.

3. Start Journaling

a woman sitting on a couch writing in a journal

As Seasonal Affective Disorder brings feelings of melancholy or fatigue, writing down thoughts and emotions can act as a form of self-therapy, aiding in introspection and self-discovery. This practice helps identify triggers and mood patterns linked to seasonal changes, which can help you proactively manage these shifts.

Additionally, it provides a record of your emotional landscape over time, allowing you to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of how your mood interacts with the environment and seasons. This can be incredibly helpful in developing more effective coping strategies and maintaining emotional equilibrium throughout the year.

4. Find a Community

Joining a community of people with similar experiences can greatly reduce SAD symptoms and offer essential support. Groups like Still I Run offer more than just physical activity; they create a space (both virtually and in-person) for individuals to openly share their struggles and successes with SAD.

In addition to emotional support, being part of a group like Still I Run brings routine and accountability, which are crucial for managing SAD. The motivation you get from group participation and witnessing others overcome similar challenges can inspire and uplift. This collective support and understanding not only help reduce the isolation associated with SAD but also pave the way for more resilient and joyful experiences.

Don't Battle Seasonal Affective Disorder Alone

Remember, reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you're struggling with seasonal depression, consider first consulting mental health professionals, as well as joining supportive communities like Still I Run, or exploring local resources.

Whether it's through exercise, light therapy, journaling, or finding a supportive community, you're not alone in your journey. By connecting with others who understand and share similar experiences, you can find support and strategies to manage these symptoms better. Now that you have some ideas for how to treat seasonal depression, join the discussion in our private Facebook group today.


By Amber Kraus

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