Sessional Affective Disorder (SAD) also referred to as seasonal depression is characterized by increased depressed mood, low energy, losing interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness, and heightened anxiety. Seasonal depression is in full swing folks, so if you are feeling low or particularly blue for “no reason” you are not alone and it is not for no reason.
How not alone are you? Researchers estimate 2-10% of the population are affected by SAD, and as much as 20% of the population reports feeling tired or sad with fewer hours of daylight in the winter months. The factors that impact an individual’s likelihood of developing SAD are: climate, individual mental health status, family history, genetics, and gender. Women are actually four times more likely to experience SAD. The winter lull is caused in part by a biochemical imbalance People with SAD experience a significant dip in serotonin levels, which are the neurotransmitter responsible for libido, appetite, sleep, mood and memory. Daylight savings also affects our circadian rhythms which are another factor impacted due to the changes in sunlight patterns.
One of the contributing factors we look at when assessing changes in mental health are referred to as vulnerability factors. These are physical, economic, social and political factors that determine people's levels of vulnerability and the extent of their capacity to resist, cope with and recover from adversity. People have different vulnerabilities depending on their biology, social supports, resources, and general worldview. Vulnerability factors look at what makes an individual more vulnerable to emotions, distress, or maladaptive coping during one period and not another. There are vulnerabilities that are constant such as race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, poverty, and disparity in access to resources. And then there are individual daily vulnerabilities like being hungry, being in a fight with your best friend, not getting enough sleep, illness, it’s raining, you’re “having a day,” the holidays, being hungover, etc. Why on Tuesday was it more difficult to tolerate life and cope effectively than it was on Saturday? The answer is increased vulnerability factors.
Donald Trump is a great example. When he was elected president, the 53.6% of us that didn’t vote for him received another built in daily vulnerability factor. The way I explain vulnerability factors to my clients is to imagine they have a tolerance cup. There is only so much life and distress a person can handle without the cup filling up and spilling over. During the day, we can empty our cup by using self-care practices, being skillful, addressing things that are within our power to change, and not avoiding showing up for commitments that will lead to feeling shameful. Vulnerability factors impact how full your cup is at the gate. For example: It is Monday, you ate a lot of cake last weekend, it’s November and you are experiencing SAD, you feel nervous about a presentation at work, the holidays are coming up and family is stressful, you are tired, and Trump. Your cup is more than half way full before you even start the day. You don’t have a lot of space for more life before you spill over. You are much more vulnerable this Monday to emotion minded reactivity than you were on Friday.
What Can we do about it?
- Self-Validate: First things first, it makes so much sense! We are having a normal response to some seriously abnormal circumstances. Of course we are heavier hearted this winter it is darker, colder, drearier, and rather depressing out there. Our news cycles are dysregulating and outrage inducing on a regular basis and just when you think it can’t get any more outrageous, it just gets worse. Yeah, I am SADer. Of course I am. I am normal.
- Maintain Your Routine AND Accept Where You Are: It is more difficult to wake up and go to spin class or go hang out with friends after work when its dark at 6am and 4pm. Winter activates the impulse to hibernate. Mood dependent behavior is tricky; we make decisions based on the mood we are in at the time. Unfortunately, in the winter months our moods say “Nope” a lot. Maintaining structure and routine especially with activities that are reinforcing like exercise, socializing, and self-care, keep our moods up and counteract the impulse to isolate. Also, we may need more sleep and have lower energy levels, that is okay too. Be mindful of your limits and how they change. What may be a person’s baseline at one time, may be drastically or subtly different in another. It’s okay, accept where you are, it is only temporary. Do your best to maintain routines and don’t judge yourself if you are operating at a lower frequency on some days.
- Work it Out: Exercise is a way to naturally release endorphins and serotonin, which increase feelings of happiness and euphoria. Exercise is a widely-regarded treatment for depression and overall mental health. For some individuals, exercise is comparable to therapy and anti-depressants. When we are exercising we typically feel more energy and our immune system also improves, so this a win-win-win.
- Have Something to Look Forward to: We need little spurts of “joy” things we can look forward to and recall when days get particularly heavy and SAD. Have a vacation planned for February or March, a friend’s weekend, a family get together with kids and delicious food. It doesn’t have to be costly or grandiose, it can be simple. In fact, the best things in life are simple. If you have a trip planned, make it a sunny one, those who suffer from seasonal depression benefit from additional sunshine.
- Slow Down and Get Grateful: Practicing yoga, meditation, mindfulness and breathing changes neural networks and reduces stress. Connecting in some way to the vastness of the universe and the notion that everything is connected has been proven to reduce feelings of powerlessness and increase feelings of acceptance. The importance of spirituality in mental health is now widely accepted and is proven to increase individuals’ ability to cope with stress and adversity. Practices such as meditation, morning gratitude lists, prayer, and radical acceptance are a few of my favorites.
- Limited Exposure: We cannot control A LOT of things, but we can choose how we engage. It is difficult when erratic, outrageous things happen not to behave in impulsive ways and react in the moment. We must be intentional with the content we let in and be responsible gatekeepers for our mind and energy. Set aside a social media time, give yourself a time limit and stick to it. Then when it is not the allotted social media time, you are on a social media break. Stick to it. Feelings fade over time if they are not re-stimulated. Think of every time you read an article, repeat a story, engage in conversation as re-firing. It is important to talk about it, and it is important to protect yourself and your energy.
- Impermanence: When things are “bad” remember this too shall pass, and when things are “good” remember this too shall pass. Everything is temporary. Be present in moments of joy without worrying about when the joy will end, or thinking if you feel this joy then something bad will inevitably happen. Joy will pass all on its own, as will pain and sadness and any other emotion we have. That is gift of impermanence, don’t attach to anything. Everything is going to change. Bask in moments of joy. Don’t make feelings bigger and don’t push them away.
- Shed a Little Light: Spend time outside. The fresh air and daylight are good for SAD symptoms. Light Boxes and light therapy are also effective and typically work in a short time. Quick fix, yes please! Light therapy mimics outdoor light and affects brain chemicals linked to mood and sleep. Make sure to consult with a doctor and get specifics about symptoms and side effects.