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  • Writer's pictureLisa McJunkin, LMFT & COO

Strategies for Seasonal Mental Health Wellness

Updated: May 6

As the days get shorter and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and even Christmas decorations begin to appear in shops, many people start to feel down. Mentally, they have symptoms that are similar to depression or anxiety, and many people start to feel physically tired and with low energy a lot of the time. 

Of course, many people associate fall and winter with family fun and the joys of the holidays, but for as many as 15% of people, the darker times of the year also cause an unpleasant set of psychological and physical symptoms. This used to be known as winter depression, but in 1984, Norman Rosenthal, M.D. coined the term seasonal affective disorder. 

Seasonal affective disorder is not a new thing to our team at Daydream MD, and many of our patients have described the symptoms of it to us in one way or another. In this article, our team at Daydream MD will talk you through the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the best ways to manage it.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

First, let's look at the definition of SAD. 

The Centre for Disease Control, or CDC, states that seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of intermittent depression that is impacted and worsened by the changing of the seasons. People with SAD notice that their moods and energy levels begin to drop at around the same time in the year, usually in fall and winter, as natural sunlight begins to diminish and the days get shorter. 

Interestingly, many people who are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder SAD notice that as the spring months set in and natural light increases, the symptoms of SAD begin to vanish. This has led to speculation that going out in the sun to get some vitamin D is more important for mental health than once thought!

Symptoms of SAD

So, what are some of the symptoms of SAD?

As mentioned before, in the majority of cases, the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder will show themselves in late fall or early winter. It should be noted that most symptoms start out very mild, and as the seasons progress and get darker, and the holiday period is left behind, the illness may worsen.

Some signs that you or a family member may be suffering from SAD include:

  • Feeling sad or down for most of the day, every day, in the fall and winter.

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that you were fond of.

  • Having low energy levels and feeling exhausted or sluggish. 

  • Hyposomnia or sleeping too much.

  • Eating issues, such as craving carbohydrates, overeating, and gaining weight. 

  • Having problems with concentration.

  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, or guilty. 

  • Suicidal ideation and not wanting to live. If you or a family member experience this, please call for emergency help.

Causes and Risk Factors of SAD

Interestingly, research into SAD has found that this illness is not as random as many people think it is. There are some factors that can increase the chances of a person suffering from SAD, meaning that mental health strategies can be implemented to minimize the effects in some people. 

A person's internal clock or circadian rhythm may play a part in SAD. The reduction in sunlight can cause issues with the internal clock and lead to or worsen the symptoms of SAD. Simply put, your body is puzzled as to why you are awake in the middle of the night all the time.

Most people who have any type of depression will be aware of the brain chemical serotonin. It impacts mood and plays a part in SAD. Research has found via animal models that exposure to less sunlight causes a drop in serotonin, which can cause low mood, depression, and other mental health issues. Vitamin D, which is a vitamin that humans absorb from sunlight, plays a core part in the creation of serotonin. The less vitamin D you get, the more your serotonin levels will drop.

Melatonin is another neurochemical that plays a role in maintaining sleep patterns and mood. Again, sunlight or natural light helps to create vitamin D, which then helps the body to make melatonin, thereby reducing winter blues or SAD. 

If you have a previous history of mental illnesses or, indeed, a family history of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, then this can increase your chances of developing SAD. However, many people find that due to these pre-existing mental health issues, they have better mental health strategies in place, which can, therefore, promote better mental health wellness over the darker months. 

As SAD is linked primarily to light and exposure, there are many tips that our team at Daydream MD can recommend to help you manage your SAD. We also have our ketamine treatment and ketamine therapy as a last resort for those with a severe case. 

Engaging in physical activity for 30 minutes a day outside of the home can help. Even in the winter months, being outside during daylight hours can be helpful and will aid in mental health wellness for those with SAD.

Many people who have SAD have found that having a natural light box in their home can help reduce the negative feelings of SAD. This is known as light therapy, and sitting in the natural light of an SAD lamp can help to reduce the low levels of vitamin D in the body and improve mood. 

Mental health wellness is drastically improved with exercise. So, to help with your SAD, try to go for a jog in your local park, or even a brisk walk around the streets can be helpful. Or, if you have a gym membership, it can be worth upping your attendance in the colder, darker winter months, as most gyms are lit with natural UV lights. 

Yes, it can feel that getting up at 6 am on a weekend in the middle of winter is a chore, especially as it's cold and dark. However, maintaining sleep hygiene will help you to better manage your SAD, so make sure you stick your alarm clock on!

Interested in learning more? Reach out to the Daydream MD team today.

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