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Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Woman with her dog at sunset in winter

If you feel like your energy has waned along with the decreasing daylight hours, you’re not alone. As the days grow colder and we lose sunlight through December 21, we are all more prone to experiencing lower moods, sleepiness, a craving for carbohydrates, and an urge to nest at home.

But if you’re feeling depressed, oversleeping, overeating, or have feelings of hopelessness or despair, you might be among the estimated ten million Americans (about five percent of the population) who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a type of depression that has been linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with the condition than men.

The symptoms of SAD are similar to depression in general, except that SAD has a seasonal pattern of onset in late fall and improvement in the spring. People who have SAD will typically experience a combination of low mood, lethargy, lack of ability to take joy from their usual activities, overeating and excessive sleep, decrease in sexual drive, low self-esteem, and even suicidal thoughts.

SAD sometimes runs in families, and people with SAD tend to have other mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, an eating disorder, an anxiety disorder, or a panic disorder.

A Double Whammy: COVID-19 and SAD

Because external stressors can trigger episodes of depression, anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic can impact vulnerable individuals.

Last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, behavioral health providers saw patients whose SAD was compounded by the loneliness of social distancing and the stress of illness and loss, financial concerns, and other pandemic realities. This year, with a majority of the population vaccinated and more in-person gatherings, we can hope for less severe effects.

The reason why some people are prone to SAD is unknown. However, the National Institute of Mental Health says people suffering from SAD may exhibit the following:

  • Trouble regulating serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters involved in mood
  • An overproduction of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone that the body makes when it’s dark outside
  • A decrease in the production of vitamin D

Therefore, light therapy, psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, and vitamin D are among the treatments that can help.

How to Help Seasonal Depression

Whether or not we have a diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are steps we all can take to counteract the effects of seasonal depression:

  1. Spend time outside whenever you can, especially in the sunlight. Take a walk on your lunch break. Sit by a sunny window and read.
  2. Make plans to socialize with friends and family, whether outdoors or indoors.
  3. Maintain healthy routines of sleep and exercise. Try meditation and yoga to help regulate your emotions.
  4. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your health care provider about therapy options or antidepressant medication.

Having lived through nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all gained some awareness of our individual coping mechanisms, the activities that make us feel better and give us the energy to persevere. The resilience we have shown should give us some confidence as we head into winter 2022. That, and the fact that after December 21, we start to gain daylight again.

What to Do If You Need Help

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Patricia Guerra-Garcia, MD

About Patricia Guerra-Garcia, MD

Dr. Patricia Guerra-Garcia is a board certified internal medicine physician and Senior Medical Director at Independence Blue Cross. She is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and Executive Leader Fellow of the American Health Insurance Plans. In her role at Independence, she leads medical management operations, collaborates with local physicians to ensure that members receive high quality evidence based care, and provides community outreach to educate the community in various health topics. Dr. Guerra-Garcia is originally from Lima, Peru. She completed her training in Internal Medicine and fellowship training in General Internal Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital.