As we move into the winter months, you may be experiencing what’s known as seasonal affective disorder. You may know it by other names, like the winter blues, seasonal depression or the aptly named acronym SAD. December is Seasonal Depression Awareness month, and it’s no wonder. Shorter days and a lack of sunshine can throw our bodies into a winter funk that is hard to shake.

Let’s look at what we know about seasonal affective disorder and how it can be treated at home and by your medical professional.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depressive disorder triggered by the changing seasons and lack of sunlight. It causes signs and symptoms similar to major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, but it is limited to certain months of the year, particularly the winter months. It occurs in .5-3% of the general population, although it is more prevalent among those who are already diagnosed with major depressive or bipolar disorder. Common symptoms include:

  • A loss of interest in normal activities
  • Low energy
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Carbohydrate cravings and weight gain
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness

There’s also a milder form of the condition known as subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder or seasonality. These individuals may notice milder symptoms and can also benefit from the strategies listed below.

Professional treatment

If your seasonal affective disorder symptoms are starting to interfere with your ability to work and live your daily life, make an appointment with your doctor. Seasonal affective disorder responds to various treatments, including:

Light therapy can mimic the sun and promote changes in your brain chemistry that lift your mood. Your doctor can help you decide if light therapy is a good option for treating your symptoms. You can buy a light box without a prescription. Keep in mind that these devices are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so talk to your doctor and do your research before you invest in one.

Antidepressant therapy may lift your mood by increasing the level of certain chemicals in your brain. Your doctor can talk to you about the benefits and drawbacks of these medications. You may need to try more than one medication to find the one that works best for you.

Talk therapy is always a good idea when you’re having trouble coping.

At-home strategies

Fortunately, there are a lot of things you can do at home to relieve the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. You don’t have to try to do everything at once – even small changes may have big results.

Exercise. Yes, we know. Oversleeping is a symptom of seasonal affective disorder, and we understand that you’d rather stay in bed. But, if you can pull yourself out from under the covers and add daily activities, you may notice it gets easier each time. Walk the dog. Do some jumping jacks. Sign up for a fitness class at the nearest Hancock Wellness Center.

Be social. Isolation can lead to increased depression, which is the last thing you need to add to your winter burdens. Make sure you’re having regular human interaction. If you can’t meet in-person with your favorite people, try a video call. If holiday parties suck the life out of you after a while, consider inviting a friend to go to a movie or grab a quick dinner.

Set a schedule. You may be sleeping too much in the morning, which leads you to hours of staring at the clock at night. When you finally fall asleep, you’re back to your mixed-up schedule that doesn’t fit with your family and work commitments. Sticking to a schedule is the first step to making your days and nights more predictable. This includes eating at regular intervals, rather than grazing throughout the day and night. Check out more healthy sleeping tips here.

Avoid alcohol and other substances. ‘Tis the party season, but misusing alcohol and other substances can exacerbate your depression.

The good news? Most seasonal depression lifts in the spring, as the days become brighter and longer. In the meantime, we have plenty of coping strategies. People rarely “snap out of” depression, but you may find your symptoms gradually lifting.

If you are struggling with addiction or a mental health condition and don’t know where to turn, reach out to the Healthy365 Connection Center. Our trained support navigators can help you find resources that guide you to a healthier, happier and well you, no matter what season we’re in.