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Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Practical Approach to Improving Moods

Updated on June 19, 2013
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MOODS CHANGE WITH THE SEASONS?

These generally occur during the fall or winter and improve during spring or summer, however some individuals can experience these problems during any seasonal change

  • Hopelessness
  • Disturbances in sleep patterns (too much or inability to sleep)
  • Anxiousness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in eating habits (over eating or lack of hunger)
  • Low or no interest in normal activities
  • General heaviness/lack of energy
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability

Outside the rain pours, clouds hang low, and suddenly a strange sense of gloom begins to form. When the seasons change and the sun shines brilliantly once more, spirits lift and life feels normal again. Dark dreary seasons bring a tell-tale lack of energy, sadness, difficulty with sleep, and other troubles. This roller-coaster of emotions that coincide with the changing weather might sound a bit familiar to some.

Nearly 20% of all Americans experience some level of seasonal affective disorder or the winter blues. The most severe forms affect about 5% according to Ohio State University (2012). Many women and men do their best to keep a positive attitude throughout the fall and winter, yet their depressed mood is difficult to hide.

Winter depression or blues specifically describes depressive feelings during the onset of fall or winter months, while seasonal affective disorder (SAD) happens during any seasonal change; especially ones with shorter days and limited sunlight. Lower light levels cause a decrease in the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin.

Many people believe this is not a serious condition because most of us feel a little down when it’s rainy and gray outside. There is an expectation that everyone should be able to press past sad feelings. However, SAD is a real problem. It causes more extreme amounts of negative feelings that last for longer periods of time.

So, what’s the difference, why are some more likely to sing the blues during dark drab days than others? One theory is people with a genetic predisposition for depression or a family history of mood disorders have a greater chance to experience SAD. Others who live in the north and women in their early twenties are more at risk, though anyone can experience SAD according to Mental Health America (2012).

Awareness is important as it allows individuals time to prepare for the approach of seasonal changes. Consider holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve and New Years Day. Depressive feelings combined with stress or loneliness during holidays can exacerbate negative feelings. Awareness gives the individual a chance to prepare and counteract the challenges they will face.

Here is good news for people who experience SAD. A few simple additions or changes can naturally make a difference:

(Warning: seek advice from your health care provider or mental health professional before making changes to your routine, this is not intended as a substitute for professional advice or care. This is meant only for informational purposes that are widely used by the general public)

Support groups

Surround yourself with empathetic and supportive people. Check with your local counseling association, NAMI, or various church/ministry/religious organization that can provide resources for local support groups. Knowing you are among people who understand and care can provide needed support during these difficult times. You might also consider starting your own support network through meetups, facebook or others social network sites. It’s important to consider that groups are public and therefore have limited confidentiality. Connect with an individual counselor if you prefer private therapeutic interaction instead.

Portable light boxes:

Light boxes use UV light that is filtered through a screen to block out any damaging effects. This safer form of light protects your skin and eyes while increasing serotonin levels. Some pharmacies carry these light boxes or you might purchase them online. Please note, this is different from tanning beds which over time may increase risks for skin cancer. Serotonin levels are increased from visible light through the eye, not tanning.

Begin a safe exercise routine in your own home:

This does not have to be extreme or overwhelming. Exercise is known to increase serotonin levels, and simple aerobic routines can be viewed free online or take place in-person at a local community college or gym. These are affordable and fun. (Reminder: check with your own health professional before starting or making changes to your own health care routine)

Develop Your Library:

Shop for self-help books that teach people how to deal with SAD or depressive feelings. Make certain these are based on accepted forms of therapy such as cognitive behavioral or other evidence based therapies.

Prayer:

Prayer has been found to improve mood for many people (Captari, 2012 & Staines, 2009) Praying throughout the day can potentially help improve mood and spiritual health too.

Meditating on the Word of God (Christian):

This form of meditation requires the Believer to consciously ponder scriptures in a manner that brings godly wisdom and spiritual enlightenment, while drawing them closer to God. Specific scriptures surrounding joy, hope, peace, and thankfulness can bring encouragement that positively improves mood.

Mindfulness (Secular) (Christian forms PDF):

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that requires the individual to focus on what is happening in their own body, feelings, emotions, and environment while remaining completely aware yet non-judgmental. The individual does not disassociate from reality, or try to ‘empty’ their mind of thoughts as in traditional forms of meditation. Instead the individual stays acutely aware yet accepts reality with peace.


These suggestions are not all inclusive. Key elements such as melatonin, circadian rhythm, in-depth discussions of biological factors, antidepressant medications, or other issues are not discussed here. For more detailed and complete information contact your health professional. National 211 or www.211.org can offer resources to find help in your area.

Here’s hoping you have a season of joy with freedom from SAD.


References

Captari, L. (2012). Research Update: Is it Possible to Prevent Major Depression?. American Association of Christian Counselors. Retrieved from: http://www.aacc.net/2012/11/15/research-update-is-it-possible-to-prevent-major-depression/

Mayo Clinic, (2011). In-Depth: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/seasonal-affective-disorder/DS00195/TAB=indepth

Staines, R. (2009). Prayer can Reduce Levels of Depression and Anxiety in Patients, According to Research. Nursingtimes, Retrieved from:http://www.nursingtimes.net/whats-new-in-nursing/prayer-can-reduce-levels-of-depression-and-anxiety-in-patients-according-to-

Young, S. N., (2007) How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 November; 32(6): 394–399. PMCID: PMC2077351research/1989756.article


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