It's that time of year again. The leaves are falling, and we're breaking out the winter sweaters and hot chocolate. Most people aren't bothered by the colder, shorter days of fall and winter and transition through the seasons smoothly.
But for some, the lack of light and Vitamin D from the sun can wreak havoc and cause them to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. And for those in recovery, this time of year may add stress to an already challenging season.
What is SAD?
SAD is a mood disorder that goes beyond the typical "winter blues" and can sink some people into a dangerous and dark depression. Doctors and researchers point to the most likely causes of SAD being trouble balancing neurotransmitters related to mood.
Serotonin and melatonin disruptions cause an imbalance in circadian rhythms that are crucial for regulating sleep, mood, energy, and weight. When there is less sunlight, people with SAD produce too much sleep-inducing melatonin and too little feel-good serotonin.
A SAD diagnosis is made when symptoms of clinical depression occur regularly at the same time each year for two or more years in a row. The symptoms begin in the early fall and usually subside in spring. Although rare, seasonal depression can also afflict people during the summer months. SAD is more common in women than in men, and the typical onset occurs during young adulthood.
Those who already suffer from depression or Bipolar Disorder are at increased risk for SAD. Living in climates where sunshine is not enjoyed year-round also puts people at risk. Lack of sunshine causes low Vitamin D levels and may cause serotonin levels to plummet, leading to depression. Many of us are low in Vitamin D even if we don't suffer from SAD. So, it's a good idea to have your levels checked annually.
Symptoms can range in severity from mild to severe. If you suspect you may have SAD, it's best to seek medical attention immediately. Don't wait until the dead of winter hits and you find yourself in crisis. Suicide is as much a concern (as with regular depression) for those suffering from SAD.
Common symptoms may include:
- Low energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Increased anxiety
- Greater appetite (especially for sugar and carbs)
- Isolating from friends and family
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Weight gain
There are four major types of treatment for SAD, including light therapy, medication, talk therapy and supplementing with Vitamin D. Usually an individualized combination of one or more of these treatments can effectively treat SAD.
Patients report light therapy to be highly effective at combating SAD when used daily. Light therapy boxes (containing 10,000 lux of fluorescent light) help simulate natural sunlight. However, unlike natural sunlight, light therapy does not provide Vitamin D. Be sure the light therapy box you purchase does not emit ultraviolet (UV) rays. Follow your doctor's guidelines on the length of time you should use your light each day.
If serious and prolonged symptoms persist, medication may be required along with talk therapy. It's important to note that treatments vary and some cases may be more challenging to treat, especially when an underlying mental health diagnosis, active addiction, or a dual diagnosis of both is also present.
Is this your first sober fall/winter? Be proactive and put some safeguards in place that can help immunize you from extra stress. Recognize potential untreated symptoms of SAD before they leave you vulnerable and facing possible relapse.
Coping With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Have you struggled with SAD in the past? Note what has worked for you and what may need to be updated in your treatment plan. Talk to others in recovery and share strategies for surviving fall, winter, and the hectic holiday season.
Here are some other tips to help you along the way:
- Maintain a regular sleep and exercise schedule
- Eat a balanced diet rich in complex carbs and Vitamin D
- Avoid processed foods and refined sugars
- Proper hydration is just as important in the winter
- Plan a getaway to a sunny destination
- Take up a winter sport such as hiking or snowshoeing
- Try a new fitness or yoga class
If you're prone to hibernating or isolating, ask a friend or family member to check on you and make some coffee or meetup dates. Most importantly, reach out for help if you need it. And remember, springtime is only a season away.