Health Features

Focus on SAD

From festive activities to family traditions, the winter months are often merry and bright. For many, however, the season’s shorter, darker days bring their own challenges. Around 2% of the population suffers from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and another 10% copes with milder forms of seasonal depression. With the pandemic already weighing heavy on people’s minds, it’s more important than ever to think about mental health.

SAD is a form of depression that occurs at the same time every year. Although it can happen during any season, it is most typically associated with the winter months, according to Amy Konsewicz, SSM Health manager of outpatient behavioral health. “Days are shorter, and people spend more time inside,” she explains. “The reduced sunlight can disrupt people’s circadian rhythms and cause a drop in serotonin, triggering depression.”

With the stress of COVID-19 and the isolation of social distancing, SAD’s impact may be compounded this year, since people are already experiencing a feeling of hopelessness. If you or a loved one already suffers from depression, there may be a higher risk for severe mood disorder symptoms, Konsewicz notes. “It’s important to check in with friends and family during the winter months, especially during this time of increased social isolation,” she says. “Even if we can’t be in the same spaces, we’re all navigating the uncertainty of this pandemic together, and there are resources available to help people get through the season.”

common symptoms of SAD

  • Fatigue
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anxiety or feeling hopeless
  • Disinterest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia
  • Oversleeping
  • Irritability
  • Dietary problems such as eating too much or too little

Konsewicz says that being proactive now can make a difference later in winter. She recommends starting a self-care routine. “It can be as simple as exercising, eating healthy and putting aside time for an activity you enjoy,” she says. “If you get into the habit now, you’ll have that in your arsenal when you need it.” She adds that starting medication before SAD symptoms worsen also can be beneficial.

treatment options for SAD include:

  • light therapy: The use of special light boxes can mimic the effect of sunlight. “They help increase vitamin D levels and affect the brain chemicals that are linked to mood,” Konsewicz explains.
  • medication: Antidepressants can be used to treat SAD, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by
    increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
  • cognitive behavioral therapy: Talking with a professional can help you manage stress, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and identify and change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
  • mind-body techniques: Relaxation exercises like meditation, yoga, and art or music therapy may be useful to help cope with SAD.

Additional Source: The Mayo Clinic