By Jenn Bovee, LCSW, CRADC, CCTP, CCHT, EMDR Therapist
Many people are aware of the term Seasonal Affective Disorder—often known as SAD—but the most prominent piece that people often miss is that by March or April, this disorder is frequently at its peak. Four to six percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with SAD, which is actually a type of depression with a seasonal pattern, that typically spans four to five months of the year. It is always eye-opening when we begin to explain to our clients that there are two types of Seasonal Affective Disorder: a winter variation and a summer variation. The typical symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder include:
- Feeling listless, sad, or down most of the day, nearly every day
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having low energy and feeling sluggish
- Having problems with sleeping too much
- Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating, and weight gain
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
- Having thoughts of not wanting to live
A big piece of overcoming seasonal affective disorder is to understand and recognize the reason for what you are experiencing. Crucial to that understanding is being aware of the two variations of SAD. It’s important to know the differences between the fall/winter variation and the spring/summer variation because every year, somewhere around March, people who experience any level of Seasonal Affective Disorder feel increased symptoms. They have often erroneously attributed their symptoms to the “winter blues” and then wonder why their hopelessness is increasing as spring approaches. Those with Seasonal Affective Disorder somehow believe that when the sun finally returns to its rightful home in Central Illinois, all of their SAD symptoms will instantly go away.
The additional specific symptoms that are a part of Fall/Winter SAD are:
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
- Weight gain
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
The additional symptoms that are specific to Spring/Summer-pattern SAD include:
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite, leading to weight loss
- Restlessness and agitation
- Episodes of violent behavior
Understanding how prevalent Seasonal Affective Disorder is, in combination with its cycles, is fundamental to overcoming the severity of Seasonal Affective Disorder. These are some of the recommendations we typically give our clients:
- The Power of Movement: Exercise of any sort can assist in alleviating symptoms of SAD. This exercise doesn’t need to be a formal “work-out” at a gym. It can also include things like yoga, going for a walk, doing home video exercises, or exploring various exercise apps on your phone. Just make sure to move your body, even if it’s just going to the grocery store and exploring every aisle.
- The Power of Sunlight: Many experts recommend that people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, open their curtains as much as possible to maximize exposure to natural light and choose natural lighting in the experiences where you don’t have direct sunlight exposure. Go for a brief, brisk walk around noon or soon after because that’s when the sun is the brightest. Have your primary care physician check your Vitamin D level. Vitamin D—also known as the “sunshine vitamin”—can only be produced when your skin is exposed to the sun. It has been noted that many people with depression also have low levels of Vitamin D.
- Enhance Your Outlets: Think about the fun activities you do in the summer—picnics, get-togethers, vacations, gardening, or just spending time outdoors. It’s crucial to find replacements for those during the fall, winter, and early spring months. Participate in a book club, join a journaling group or commit to daily journaling yourself, have coffee with a friend, bundle up and get outside—even if the weather isn’t ideal.
- Book a trip: Planning a vacation not only gives you something to look forward to that boosts your mood, but helps to give you the wherewithal to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Most people with SAD consistently report feeling better after a vacation or trip. If money is tight, go to a local hotel and schedule a staycation. If that’s not an option, decorate a room or a corner of the place where you live. Decorate it to represent something tropical. Grab a mood light while you are at it. Hang out in there, smell some coconut oil, play some waves hitting the ocean sounds, and just allow yourself to relax.
People who live with Seasonal Affective Disorder often feel hopeless. Living with any kind of depression can convince you that you are the only one suffering from this, and it will never get any better. But depression of any sort is a very treatable condition. Take that first step and contact a mental health professional to get on the path to a happier and healthier life.
For help with this struggle, or any other mental health issue, contact The Mental Wellness Center, Inc. at 309-807-5077 or Info@TheMentalWellnessCenter.com. Their offices are located at 205 N. Williamsburg Drive, Suite A, Bloomington, IL 61704 and 405 N. Kays Drive, Suite A, Normal IL 61761. They are invested in helping you return to—or achieve, possibly for the first time ever—a state of complete mental wellness.