Rates of anxiety and depression are already skyrocketing due to the stress of the pandemic. With the double whammy of that stress and the unusual nature of the upcoming holidays, researchers and behavioral specialists are concerned about the growing incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD) in the general population. There are also some concerns that the existing treatments may not be as effective as they used to be.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not just “winter blues”. It is a form of depression, which has a seasonal quality to it. The majority of SAD happens during the winter months. It begins during late fall and lasts until early spring. In some rare cases, seasonal affective disorders can happen during spring or even summer months. If left untreated, it may decrease productivity, lead to difficulties with daily functioning, work, relationships, or in severe cases, self-harming or suicidal thoughts. It is vital to recognize and treat this condition promptly.
The incidence of SAD ranges from 0.5 to 3 percent in the general population. Those with an existing depression have a 20 percent chance of getting SAD, and those who have Bipolar Disorder can get it at a rate of 25 percent. Symptoms of SAD are the same as those of Major Depressive Disorder.
Sadness lasting for days to weeks.
Loss of interest in things one would enjoy before (anhedonia).
Changes in appetite (increased or decreased).
Weight changes (weight loss or weight gain).
Feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or guilt.
Sleep changes (insomnia or excessive sleep).
Suicidal thoughts in severe cases.
The causes of SAD are unknown, but changes in circadian rhythm, low serotonin, high melatonin, and low vitamin D levels, all related to decreasing sunlight, are some of the known triggers of SAD.
Like depression, SAD is also one of the most treatable psychiatric conditions, and after adequate treatment, it can lead to better emotional wellbeing and productive winter months. The most common treatments of SAD are phototherapy, medications, and psychotherapy.
In addition to professional treatments, there are some self-help strategies that one can do to both prevent and help us manage SAD symptoms. These are:
1. Move your work area close to a well-lit part of the house, like a window or foyer. Try to remove heavy drapes, blinds to let enough sunlight in the room. When it gets dark, put extra lamps in the room.
2. Try to go outdoors at least once or twice during the day, either for walks or a jog, to get extra sunlight.
3. Develop an exercise routine to get those muscles moving and extract some endorphins, which can elevate mood.
4. Use a Light Box, which is available at any major online or retail stores, preferably of 10,000 lux units, and sit underneath it for at least one hour every morning. Timing is vital, as the alerting and mood-enhancing effects of light are most potent when first awake. The light must be directly on your eyes, and your eyes must be open. One can find relief within two weeks of using the lightbox daily and at on same time. The FDA has not approved them yet, so many insurances will not cover it. To know more about them, and how to find the right one, talk to your family doctor or consult a psychiatrist.
5. Pay attention to your nutritional habits. Many people with SAD will crave junk food and soft drinks as a part of cravings for carbohydrates. A better strategy is to eat more complex carbs like rice or pasta. Consume foods rich in vitamin D like fortified orange juice, milk, cheese, salmon, mushrooms, eggs. Nutritional supplements like at least 2000 to 5000 units of vitamin D daily, beginning in late summer and continuing till late spring, may overcome the deficiency of Vitamin D due to decreased sunlight, which can cause SAD. It is also essential to eat on time and to drink plenty of fluids, but avoid eating/drinking at least 2 hours before bedtime to prevent nighttime bathroom interruptions.
6. Try to stay connected with your friends and family via phone, FaceTime, emails, texts, etc. Connection creates a sense of belonging, leading to a sense of well-being.
7. Create a healthy sleep routine by getting to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time in the mornings. Dim the bedroom lights at bedtime. Remove heavy drapes. Shut all devices at least one to two hours before bedtime, except to listen to some meditation music or any light music.
8. Incorporating routines in your day-to-day affairs like relaxation, meditation, prayer, deep breathing, etc., can create a sense of well-being. Dedicate a tranquil area of your house for these activities.
9. Develop a hobby during this time, like reading, playing a musical instrument, knitting, writing, etc.
10. Keeping a mood journal or a journal to just write down your feelings, especially during bedtime, can help keep your mind calm and focused.
11. If you are living alone, consider getting a pet! It can create a sense of companionship, a sense of responsibility, and can lead to increased contentment.
12. Whenever you get a moment, try to drive by local neighborhoods during the evening time to enjoy the holiday lights.
And lastly, do not hesitate to seek help. If your doctor prescribes medications like antidepressants or recommends going for a brief therapy with a counselor, it is vital to take that seriously and follow through. Recognizing and treating early symptoms of SAD can prevent future serious and severe mental health conditions. Proper treatment and early recognition can also prevent unhealthy ways of coping with SAD symptoms like alcohol use and or dependence on illicit substances, thus leading to overall emotional well-being. Good luck!