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Although the holiday season is seen as a time of cheer, family, and delicious food, winter time, for some, also marks the beginning of an internal battle against seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is more than just winter blues. It’s a form of clinical depression that occurs during all seasons but occurs most often during fall and winter. Up to 25% of the population may experience a mild version of SAD, and approximately 5% of the population experience full-fledged SAD.

Patients suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder have symptoms around the same time every year.  Common symptoms include low mood and energy, trouble sleeping, a ‘heavy’ feeling in the legs and arms, foggy thinking, and weight gain. During this time, patients tend to have more strain in their relationships and feel like they’re stuck in a rut. As it warms up and spring begins, symptoms start to fade and patients begin to feel more like themselves again.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is linked to the body’s lack of exposure to sunlight during the winter months. Lack of sunlight is thought to affect the hypothalamus, an endocrine gland responsible for regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. Disruption in the hypothalamus is linked to a reduction in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, and an increase in the hormone melatonin, which induces sleepiness. Lastly, lack of sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock, which also regulates mood, sleep, appetite, and digestion.

SAD can affect anyone, but those who live farther from the equator, have experience with depression, or have a family history of depression are more at risk. There are things that you can to do avoid spiraling during the winter season and manage or reduce symptoms.

Increase your exposure to natural light

Try to get outside more. If you spend most of your time indoors working, you can fit in small breaks outside when you eat your meals, during exercise, and when spending time with loved ones. In addition, open up windows when you’re inside, and keep your environment light and airy.

Invest in some light therapy

A main form of treatment for SAD is light therapy, where patients sit in front of a light box that produces artificial bright white light similar to sunlight (without harmful UV rays) in the morning. Light therapy resets the body’s internal clock and alleviates SAD symptoms in almost all users. In controlled trial studies, light therapy has been shown to alleviate SAD symptoms as well as antidepressants with few side effects and begins working in as little as a few days to a few weeks. Devices can be purchased over the counter.

Light therapy can be both a cost effective and effective treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Image Source: JGI/Jamie Grill

Reach Out to Your Support System

Let your loved ones know what you’re going through. It will help them understand your mood changes and support you better. It can help combat feelings of being overwhelmed or alone. Psychotherapy that includes talking and behavioral therapy to manage stress and to develop healthy coping mechanisms can also be beneficial.

Exercise your body

Exercise has been shown to be very beneficial for depression. Aim for at least 35 minutes or more a day, and go outside if you can.

Consider taking medication if serious

In more severe cases, an antidepressant, most likely a SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor) may be necessary as prescribed by your doctor. They can elevate serotonin levels and boost your mood. They usually start working in 4-6 weeks and may be necessary to take leading up to the period when seasonal affective disorder begins.

Although Seasonal Affective Disorder can be difficult during the holidays, it’s manageable if you are aware of your mood changes and take steps to alleviate your symptoms.

Feature Image Source: Foggy Night by Shaun Fisher

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