Does the weather affect your mood drastically? While it is common for most people to experience a slight change in our sense of well-being when the weather transitions from blue skies, sunny and hot to cold, wet and dreary, some of us may feel a Jekyll and Hyde shift in our personalities during this paradigm shift. If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. What you may be experiencing is Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is also referred to as seasonal depression.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year. For example, you may have SAD if you have felt depressed during the last two winters but felt significantly better in the spring and summer. Though less common, some people may be affected by SAD in the summer months, with symptoms beginning in the spring. Although the cause of SAD is not clear, experts suggest that it could be due to lack of sunlight, which may upset or disturb the biological clock controlling your sleep-wake pattern and circadian rhythms and causing problems with lack of serotonin.
There may be a genetic disposition component to SAD. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it is notable that 13–17% of people who develop SAD have an immediate family member with the disorder.
Common symptoms may include:
- Feeling sad, irritable, moody, stressed, anxious, or hopeless.
- Losing interest in your usual activities or being unable to carry out daily tasks.
- Avoiding people or social events.
- Eating more and craving sugar and or carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.
- Weight gain.
- Difficulty sleeping or a feeling of unrest after a night’s sleep.
- Inability or challenges in concentrating.
How is SAD Diagnosed?
If you experience the above symptoms every year, it is understandable that your quality of life can be impacted. However, any Psychology 101 students will remember their professor saying do NOT diagnose yourself with your textbook. Please speak with a health professional to ensure that what you are experiencing is SAD and not another form of health condition.
A Light at the End of the SAD Tunnel!
The most common treatment for SAD is light therapy (also known as bright light therapy or phototherapy) which provides exposure to artificial lighting that mimics natural outdoor light. During this type of treatment, one sits or works near the device, often called a light therapy box. The prevailing theory is that exposure to light will affect brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep, thereby easing SAD symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several side effects which may or may not be mild and short acting, such as:
- Irritability or agitation
It is crucial to speak with your doctor or health professional if you are considering light therapy as they may be able to assist in factoring intensity, duration, and timing. This is especially important if:
- you have a condition that makes your skin especially sensitive to light, such as systemic lupus erythematosus.
- you take medications that increase your sensitivity to sunlight, such as certain antibiotics, anti-inflammatories or the herbal supplement St. John’s Wort.
- you have an eye condition that makes your eyes vulnerable to light damage.
To find out more about light therapy, such as side effects, efficacy, and detailed information on how it works, the Mayo Clinic has some great information on their website.
Antidepressant medication may assist those diagnosed with SAD, either as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with light therapy.
If your doctor prescribes you an antidepressant, please ensure to take it as instructed. It may take several weeks to notice or feel the benefits of the medication. Please do not stop taking it suddenly. Abrupt cessation of drugs may cause unwanted side effects, such as withdrawal symptoms, or make your depression worse. As a side note, it is not uncommon for a doctor to prescribe alternatives to find out what works best for each individual with the least amount of side effects.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an approach that is commonly used to help manage symptoms as it can teach you coping skills to help positively alter your view of the world around you. This is done by coaching you to break the negative patterns of depression, including the thoughts and actions that possibly perpetuate depression. CBT may be used in conjunction with light therapy and or antidepressants.
Aside from prescription medications to treat SAD, the following over the counter treatments are sometimes utilized:
- St. John’s Wort
- Vitamin D
Though there is a lack of sufficient evidence on these supplements according to WebMD, the above natural remedies are at times used to reduce symptoms of SAD. To read more about their common uses, side effects, and dosage details, please visit here.
What can you do on your own to feel better?
Some individuals find that regular exercise, such as walking outside, especially when there is sunlight, can help provide more energy. Moderate exercise, such as resistance training or weight training, is safe for most people. If you have certain medical concerns that can increase chances of an adverse risk, such as diabetes or a heart condition, please ensure that you speak with your doctor first.
Some activities such as yoga, pilates, meditation, potlucks, game nights, or other social engagements can be beneficial to shift one’s mood on a rainy day. Doing things that you enjoy can make a huge difference. In addition, waking up earlier to catch whatever sunlight or daylight there is may also help one’s circadian rhythm. For example, if you sleep till noon and only have 5 hours of the day all winter, this is likely to affect your mood negatively.
You can speak with your pharmacist to learn more, as they are a good source of information. Please know that you are not alone in this, and we are here to support you and your physician in any way we can.
If you would like to learn more about SAD before seeing your physician for a consultation, please see the links below. yYoung also owns and operates a medical clinic so that you can book an appointment online with one of our walk-in doctors at www.yyoung.inputhealth.com. Our dynamic team of healthcare professionals is here to help you in all circumstances, and we look forward to seeing you!