Chase away the winter blues by knowing the causes of SAD

A woman looks sadly out the window.

The holiday season is over. The parties have ended. Now you're looking at a few months of winter's coldest and darkest days. For many of us, those winter months can make us feel sad or depressed. Sometimes, that feeling doesn't go away until spring.

In the old days, this sad feeling during winter was sometimes known as "cabin fever." Today, health professionals have a name for this condition. It's called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This seasonal depression is a mood disorder that generally occurs around the same time of year.

Biological clues

The Cleveland Clinic reports that there are actually 2 kinds of SAD. For most people with SAD, symptoms start in the fall and continue through the winter. Less often, symptoms will begin in the spring or early summer.1 In today's article, we'll talk about SAD in the fall and winter.

First of all, what causes it? The causes of SAD are unknown, though research suggests there are biological clues. Some of these may include difficulty regulating serotonin, an overproduction of the hormone melatonin, as well as an insufficient amount of vitamin D.2

How do you know if you are suffering from SAD?

People with SAD have some symptoms of depression,3 including:

  • Loss of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Increased hunger
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Sleepiness
  • Weight gain
  • Sadness
  • Heavy feeling in the arms or legs
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed

Who is more likely to suffer from SAD?

Some people may be more at risk for SAD than others. Things that may increase your risk of SAD include:4

  • Being a woman. SAD is found more often in women than in men. However, men may have symptoms that are more severe. Conditions may also begin in young adulthood.
  • Living far from the equator. SAD is more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter.
  • Having family members with SAD. Your family history may play a part in your risk for SAD.

SAD can be a serious problem

If you have any signs or symptoms of SAD, you should take them seriously and talk with your doctor about them. SAD can get worse and may lead to complications if not treated. These can include:3

  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Desire to be alone
  • School or work problems
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

Treatment can help prevent problems from getting worse, especially if your doctor diagnoses and treats SAD early.3

Ways to help with SAD

There are other things you can do to help lessen the effects of SAD. You can try the following:

  • Use light therapy. Light therapy uses a full-spectrum bright light that comes from a box that you sit or work near. The box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light. Generally, you sit in front of the light between 30 and 60 minutes each day, depending on the individual. Some people with SAD recover within days of using light therapy. Others may take much longer. If the SAD symptoms do not go away, your doctor may increase light therapy.2
  • Make your home or office sunnier and brighter. Open blinds, trim tree branches that block sunlight or add skylights to your home. Sit closer to bright windows while at home or in the office.5
  • Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park or sit on a bench. Do what you can to soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help.4
  • Exercise regularly. Physical exercise can help relieve stress, which may increase SAD symptoms. Being more active may make you feel better, too.6
  • Eat healthy. High-carb comfort foods may be loaded with extra sugar and calories. Choose a mix of hearty, low-calorie meals to help keep up your energy and fuel you throughout the day.7
  • Take medication. Some people with SAD may get better with help from antidepressants. This is especially true if symptoms are severe. Your doctor may suggest starting treatment with an antidepressant before your symptoms begin each year.10

Take care of yourself, and keep your SAD under control

Following these steps can help you manage SAD:11

  • Stick to your treatment plan. Take medications as directed and attend therapy appointments as scheduled.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough rest and take time to relax. Continue a regular exercise program. Eat regular, healthy meals. Don't turn to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief.
  • Practice stress management. Learn techniques to manage your stress. Unmanaged stress can lead to depression, overeating or other unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
  • Socialize. When you're feeling down, it can be hard to be social. Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on or a joke. It may be enough to give you a little boost.
  • Take a trip. If possible, visit sunny, warm locations for winter vacations.

As you can see, "cabin fever" is not something “made up.” It can be a serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder. But now that you know what SAD is and how to help with it, if you feel you may have SAD, talk with your doctor. With a little help, you'll be able to keep your SAD under control and get through the winter months.

Sources

  1. “Seasonal Depression,” Cleveland Clinic, last accessed May 7, 2019, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9293-seasonal-depression., opens new window
  2. “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” National Institute of Mental Health, last accessed May 7, 2019, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml., opens new window
  3. “Seasonal Affective Disorder: (SAD): Overview,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed May 7, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651., opens new window
  4. “Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues,” American Psychological Association, last accessed May 7, 2019, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/seasonal-affective-disorder.aspx., opens new window
  5. Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues.”
  6. Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues.”
  7. Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues.”
  8. Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues.”
  9. Seasonal Affective Disorder: More than the Winter Blues.”
  10. “Seasonal Affect Disorder”
  11. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Diagnosis,” Mayo Clinic, last accessed May 7, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20364722., opens new window