Feeling SAD? It Might be More Than the Winter Blues

Aleksija Vujicic

Everyone knows that the winter struggle is real. The days get shorter, the weather gets colder, and you aren’t motivated to do anything but curl up under the covers and watch Netflix. It’s easy for the winter months to get you down, especially when it’s been months since you’ve seen the sun between leaving for school before it rises, and finishing volleyball practice long after it sets (at 430pm, ugh). Winter blues are no joke.

As the cold months drag on, it can become a challenge just to wake up in the morning. You may have less energy during the day, and sloughing home through the wet snow only to do homework in the dark is enough to put anyone in a bad mood. But how do you know when you’ve crossed the line from sad, to SAD? Surprise, it turns out that’s not just an exaggerated way or describing your mood. 

SAD actually stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a form of depression that occurs specifically during a certain time of year— usually winter (though there are a few who experience it in summer instead). While the two can feel similar,  there is a big difference between the winter blues and SAD… Read on to find out whether your seasonal slump is a more serious problem, and what you can do about it. 

 

 

Is it sad, or SAD? 

It’s common to suffer from the winter blues, where you feel grouchy and stir-crazy after weeks of sun-less slush. Not only that, but forecasts below thirty degrees has been known to cause bad moods and hopelessness in many of us. The difference between a bad mood, and seasonal affective disorder, is when these symptoms begin to heavily affect your quality of life, according to psychotherapist Dr. Alison Stone.

The most important fact to acknowledge about SAD is that it is a form of major depression, meaning that it shares all the same symptoms as depression, but is limited to a certain time of year. Just like people with depression aren’t *just* in a bad mood, people with SAD aren’t *just* grumpy about the weather. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of any form of depression include: 

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy 
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight 
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

If you suffer from SAD, you may also experience a few additional symptoms: 

  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbs
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy

It’s normal to feel down or experience some of these symptoms once in a while. However, if you feel down for several days at a time and can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, it’s time to see your doctor to check out what’s going on, and see if SAD might be the right diagnosis. 

 

 

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

As I mentioned before, SAD often occurs in the winter months. While the causes are not entirely known, it seems that the disorder is linked to a lack of sunlight, which can lead to a few different consequences: 

Disrupting Your Biological Clock 

Your biological clock, aka your circadian rhythm (the scientific term), is the most basic daily rhythm you live by— your sleep-wake cycle. This pattern is related to the sun, and basically determines when you are awake and when you are asleep. That’s why you have more energy when the sun is out, and less late at night once it’s set long ago. The reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter can mess with this internal clock, and leave your body unsure when you’re supposed to be awake and when you’re supposed to be asleep. Cue low energy, an inability to wake up, and other feelings of depression. 

Lower Seratonin Levels 

Though there is a long, complicated, scientific explanation behind this, the short story is that sunlight is vital to your body’s creation of serotonin, and serotonin is what boosts your mood and makes you happy. The decrease in sunlight can cause fluctuations in your serotonin levels, making you more likely to experience symptoms of depression. 

Lower Melatonin Levels 

The short story behind Melatonin is that it plays an important role in your sleep patters and mood. The change in season can disrupt the balance of your body’s melatonin production, thereby messing with your sleep (and maybe causing you not to get enough— or too much!). I’m sure we all already know that when your sleep is disrupted, it can throw your entire day off.

 

Unfortunately, there are also a few factors that might make you more likely to suffer from SAD. They’re listed below. 

Being Young, and a Girl 

Yikes. This just had to go first. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, according to Dr. Alison Stone, young females are at an increased risk for SAD. Considering that’s (almost) all of us, it’s worth paying attention to your body and noticing whether you’re suffering from these symptoms. 

Family History 

The Mayo Clinic suggests that you are more likely to suffer from SAD if you have family members that also do. So talk to your mom and dad and see if they, or other relatives, have experienced this disorder, or another form of depression. 

Living Far from the Equator 

Bad news for those of you who live in NYC like I do. The farther you live from the equator, the colder the weather, the shorter the days, the less sunlight— aka a higher risk of SAD. Let’s just all move to LA? 

Having Depression 

If you have already been diagnosed with depression, it is likely that the winter months can worsen your symptoms, says Dr. Alison Stone. Just what you need, right?

 

I Think I Have SAD… What Do I Do?

If you relate to the majority of the symptoms described above, the first and most important step is to see a doctor and/or mental health professional. Speaking to a professional will help you determine the right diagnosis, if it is, in fact, seasonal affective disorder. Even if you aren’t suffering from SAD, specifically, feeling sleep-deprived, irritable, or hopeless are all reasons to see a mental health professional regardless. You don’t need to be clinically depressed or hitting rock bottom to seek help. 

Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with SAD, here are some helpful ways to beat the disorder, or any form of winter blues: 

Light Therapy 

Earlier I mentioned that the symptoms of SAD are often linked to a decrease in sunlight. Well, light therapy provides a faux-sunlight to reverse those effects. “Happy lights” as they’re often called, will bring some natural-feeling mood-boosting light into your bedroom and help you get a leg up on seasonal depression. Psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey says that in order for light therapy to work, it needs to be very bright (check descriptions to make sure they’re around 10k lux), close to you (like on your bedside table), and requires 20-30 minutes in the morning (while you get ready for school!). We love this light lamp, or this one!

Take Vitamin D

Vitamin D is best absorbed by the human body from directly from the sun, and in the winter months when there’s less sun, there’s less Vitamin D. According to Dr. Ramsey, having low levels of vitamin D increases the risk of depression. Therefore, it may be worth checking if your vitamin D levels are low. If they are, taking a Vitamin D supplement could help lessen the effects of the seasonal depression. 

Get Outside and Get Active 

While you may be tempted to enter hibernation in the winter, it becomes even more important to stay active and fit. Getting active, particularly in the morning, can help you maintain your energy during the day. While the idea of heading outside in frigid temps may sound less than appealing, bundling up with warm heat-tech clothes, gloves and a hat and moving your body around in the outdoors can help soak up what little sun you have, and lessen any stress and anxiety you may be feeling. 

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