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Seasonal Depression: what is it, how long does it last, and how do you fight SAD?

Find yourself feeling blue some months of the year? You could have seasonal depression.

Sep 1, 2021 PUBLISHED

Do you notice you’re a bit blue on cloudy or rainy days? Do you have a harder time completing tasks in the winter? Do you find yourself having less energy on gloomy days? 

Why does the weather have such an effect on mood?

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

In the early 1980s, Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal and the National Institute of Mental Health coined the diagnosis Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” Rosenthal’s theory was that a bout of depression he had faced during the northern winter months was due to a lack of natural light, a result of the darker winter season. 

Over three million cases of SAD are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and it more commonly affects women than men. If you live above a certain axis in a place that endures longer and darker winters, you may be more susceptible to SAD. Obviously, people gravitate toward spending more time at home as the air gets chillier in the late fall and winter. This can be cozy for many (think snuggling up by the fire, reading a book under a warm blanket), but it can also trigger fatigue, depression, and of course, social isolation for those who suffer from SAD.

What are the causes of SAD?

SAD is thought to be connected to both the dwindling natural light during winter months and the body’s circadian rhythms (our natural sleep cycles): When it’s darker outside, our bodies don’t get as much Vitamin D, which can have an influence on one’s mood. 

Add to that the fact that the body’s instinctive response to darker days is to go into hibernation mode, causing sleep hormones like melatonin to spike, and you have a recipe for a depressive mood. Treatments for SAD during these winter months include light therapy, talk therapy, vitamin supplements, medication, and general self-care.

The inverse of this phenomenon exists, too. Reverse seasonal affective disorder arrives in the late spring and summer. Unlike winter SAD, which presents with symptoms like excessive sleep, low energy, and weight gain, summer SAD inspires the opposite: insomnia, increased energy, and weight loss.

Seasonal affective disorder is a highly common mental health issue that affects millions of people each year, but what are the other ways weather could affect our mood?

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration showing a collection of seven potted plants.

How does climate change affect us emotionally?

For years now, we’ve been seeing astonishing heatwaves in the West, some of which started catastrophic wildfires that burned some entire cities and filled others with smoke for weeks. And over on the East Coast, things aren’t much better, with devastating hurricanes and flash flooding. 

Understandably, these unpredictable disasters cause anxiety and stress. But on top of that, the extremeness of these weather changes has been shown to have adverse effects on mood. When our bodies overheat, we can become confused, agitated, and even dizzy because our brains are too hot and central nervous systems are on overdrive. These physical symptoms can also contribute to psychological symptoms like anxiety.

Natural disasters and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Extreme weather can take its toll on our bodies and minds, even if our property remains untouched. Those who live in parts of the country that are affected by natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes feel the effects of these disasters long after they’re over. People who live through weather disasters can find that the experience leads them to have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Years can have passed since the natural disaster occurred, but the trauma remains in the survivors. PTSD leads to anxiety and depression, flashbacks to the traumatic event, and increased fear, among other symptoms. Luckily there are talk therapists who specialize in PTSD and are able to help sufferers. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a gray notebook with a rainbow on the cover and a yellow pencil.

What is the best treatment for seasonal affective disorder?

Whether unpredictable climate events (like hurricanes) or predictable but still distressing seasonal changes (like short windows of sunshine in the winter), it’s a fact that weather can affect our moods. Here are a few basic tips on how to manage the mood swings:

Take advantage of the mild days 

Getting out for a walk or doing some exercise on a temperate day can lower your stress levels 

Stick to your routines

Don’t put off your routines just because the weather isn’t doing what you want it to, maybe adjust to different times of the day if you want to avoid high heat or rain during outside activities

Get enough sleep 

Not getting enough sleep can send our nervous systems into shock which can induce anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed and strung out

We can’t make ourselves immune to the impacts of weather, but self-care can reduce the impacts of it.

Article originally published Sep 1, 2021.

American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder  

Blair, H. (2013). Less sunlight means more blues for some. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2013/Less-Sunlight-Means-More-Blues-for-Some 

Melrose S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression Research and Treatment. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/drt/2015/178564/

The National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Seasonal Affective Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml 

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