Taking care of your physical body during the winter months is important, especially if you tend to become more sedentary or indulge in too many holiday treats. However, your winter behaviors aren’t the only concern. Seasonal changes can directly impact your mental and emotional health, and this, in turn, can impact your physical health in many ways.
The Winter Blues
If you find yourself feeling a little down in the dumps as the temperatures begin to drop, you’re not alone. It’s common to experience moodiness, apathy or diminished energy levels during fall and winter. Some people even develop a serious form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Making your mental health a primary concern and addressing seasonal mood changes can help you live a fuller and healthier life year-round.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is associated with a change of seasons. It usually begins and ends at approximately the same time each year. Most people with SAD start to experience symptoms in the fall that continue through winter. Experts believe that between four and six percent of people have SAD. Another 10 to 20 percent may have a milder form of the disorder. It’s more common in women, and usually begins after the age of 20. As you age, your risk of developing SAD drops.
Seasonal depression is different for each person, but it’s common to experience one or more of the following symptoms:
• Feeling sad, agitated or depressed for most of the day
• Low energy levels or fatigue
• Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
• Being unable to enjoy your favorite activities
• Insomnia or early waking
• Sleeping too much
• Weight gain or loss
• Appetite changes
• Difficulty concentrating or remembering
• Preoccupation with death or suicidal thoughts
• Overindulging in food or alcohol
• Substance abuse
What Causes Seasonal Depression?
SAD that occurs in winter is related to the reduced level of natural sunlight that accompanies the season. The reduction in sunlight can affect your body in several ways. It can disrupt melatonin production and your internal biological clock, leading to changes in your circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. A lack of sun is also believed to trigger depression by reducing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is closely linked to mood and general well-being. Chemical changes in your brain can be responsible for many depression symptoms such as insomnia or food cravings, and the resulting symptoms can themselves perpetuate the cycle and deepen depression.
Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder
Treating seasonal depression often involves an integrated approach. Lifestyle changes such as getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting as much sunlight exposure as possible can sometimes resolve mild cases. If you can’t access enough natural sun to reduce your symptoms, consider light therapy; it simulates sunlight exposure using a special lamp or light box. Managing stress levels is also important; cognitive behavioral therapy or counseling may be effective in helping you cope. If conservative measures fail or your depression is severe, antidepressant medications can help correct the chemical changes caused by insufficient sunlight.
When to Seek Help
Mild seasonal depression is temporary and often tolerable, but if symptoms start to interfere with your daily life or well-being, ask your doctor about treatment options. Seek help immediately if your symptoms include suicidal thoughts, substance abuse or an inability to sleep or eat normally. With a little help from your doctor, you can stay afloat and even thrive until warmer days arrive.