It's that time of the year again. The amount of daylight is decreasing every day. Here in Seattle, the clouds, rain, and cold have moved in. People who are sensitive to the effects of weather and sunlight may notice that their moods are significantly impacted by the change in season. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common experience here in the Pacific Northwest due to our geographic distance from the equator. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD affects 5% of adults in the U.S. and can last on average 40% of the year.
The changes in weather and sunlight can impact our brain chemistry and circadian rhythm, which controls our sleep, exercise, eating patterns, and mood. I used to struggle with SAD symptoms when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago but I have created a winter routine of coping strategies that really works for me. In this blog post, I offer some ideas for preventing and coping with SAD symptoms.
Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Real?
A recent 2016 study looked at the depression rates of individuals based on geographic location, season, and sunlight but found no correlations between these factors and depression. You can read more about this study and several others in layman's terms in this Scientific American article. The author suggests that the scientific jury is still out on whether SAD is "real" even though it is recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Whether scientists have come to any definitive conclusions about SAD or not, you are the expert of your life. If you have noticed a pattern of struggling with symptoms of depression with the change in seasons, it may be helpful to engage in some preventative coping strategies so that you can feel your absolute best, even when it is dark and gloomy outside.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to that of major depressive disorder, which includes:
In addition to the symptoms of major depressive disorder, the following signs are characteristic of SAD:
Strategies to Prevent and Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder
First, formal assessments by medical and mental health professionals are helpful to rule out other possible medical or mental health concerns. Your primary care provider can conduct a physical exam and run labs to determine whether you are struggling with a physical health concern, which sometimes can look like depression, and if you are deficient in your hormones or vitamin levels. Your mental health provider can assess whether your symptoms meet diagnostic criteria for SAD and/or if there are other mental health concerns present.
If you are diagnosed with SAD, below are some evidence-based strategies to prevent or cope with the symptoms:
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The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.