Do you know about seasonal affective disorder? This time of year can feel like that old Simon & Garfunkel song: Hello, darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.
Few of us, however, would likely refer to the increased darkness of the season as an old friend. And for many of us, the things we might say to the darkness were we to talk with it probably wouldn’t be terribly nice.
This period of the year during which daylight hours seem tightly compressed and the darkness gets an early start in the evening and lasts deeper in the morning can bring most anyone down from time to time.
For some, however, the problem is deeper than the occasional darkness-inspired dip in mood. Plenty of people struggle with seasonal affective disorder (cleverly abbreviated as SAD) during the darker months. Addressing the disorder in effective ways is essential to maintaining good mental health during this dimmer and darker stretch of time.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the symptoms, causes, and potential solutions for effectively dealing with seasonal affective disorder.
Sad versus SAD
We all get sad from time to time. It is a perfectly natural part of life and an appropriate response to any number of things. But as a rule, sadness, like any other emotion, might arise for a while, but it is then swept along by the next emotion and the next. Over the course of any given day, most of us feel a wide array of emotions and they ebb and flow.
A person struggling with seasonal affective disorder may feel caught in the grip of sadness and other difficult emotions—and may try to address them in unhealthy ways. Symptoms of SAD include:
- A significant uptick in feelings of sadness, anxiety, and/or hopelessness
- A marked lack of energy that leads to difficulty concentrating and an excessive desire to sleep
- A tendency to overeat and to crave carbohydrates (cravings that are often hard to resist as the year winds down due to the avalanche of holiday goodies that may be on hand)
We should also note that in some cases, the cravings a person experiences might be for drugs or alcohol—particularly if they are struggling with a substance use disorder or are in recovery. Turning to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate against the symptoms of SAD is, of course, never the right move and will inevitably lead to additional difficulties.
What Causes SAD—And What Can You Do About It?
We opened this blog entry noting the increased levels of darkness that all of us experience this time of year—and it turns out that the lack of sunlight may be a primary cause of seasonal affective disorder.
Sunlight provides vitamin D, boosts serotonin levels in the brain, and helps regulate melatonin levels in the body. So, one approach to addressing the challenges of SAD is to make a conscious effort to get more exposure to sunlight. That may mean bundling up and getting outside each day for a walk (the exercise is good for you, too, of course) or it might mean investing in a light box designed to simulate sunlight and provide its benefits. For those with the means and inclination, heading someplace warmer and sunnier on vacation can also be a helpful move.
Other options include making sure your diet includes foods that provide plenty of vitamin D. These include hard-boiled eggs, pork, mushrooms, a variety of fish, fortified yogurt, and more. Your doctor might also recommend a vitamin D supplement as a way to ameliorate the symptoms of SAD.
It is also important to stick with your therapy sessions (or to find a therapist to work with) during the darker portions of the year. As seasonal affective disorder gets its hooks in you, it might make it feel as though therapy is a waste of time, but of course, it most certainly is not. You and your therapist can work together to find strategies that help you address and lessen the power of the negative thoughts that can accompany seasonal affective disorder.
We Are Always Happy to Help
No matter the season (or the challenges of that season), all of us at Peak View Behavioral Health in Colorado Springs are here to help you improve your mental health and maintain those improvements over time. We are committed to personalized treatment grounded in evidence, expertise, experience, and compassion. If you are experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, depression, or a trauma-based disorder, we are here to help.