Health Matters: Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder and What to Do About It

By Dr. Balaji Saravanan

Winter brings warm blankets, hot drinks, and the holiday season. However, it also brings darker days. During this time, it’s not unusual to feel signs of depression or anxiety. This type of depression is called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder often happens to people in the winter because of the loss of sunlight common in the winter months. The lack of sunlight disrupts your biological clock, also known as your body’s circadian rhythm, which results in drops of serotonin and melatonin levels. The drop in melatonin leads to low energy levels, while the drop in serotonin can lead to more feelings of sadness.

Mental illness and depression are topics that are often stigmatized and not the easiest topics to discuss. However, treating depression and seasonal affective disorders appropriately are your best way at keeping your high quality of life – especially during the winter months.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder may include:

  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Oversleeping or other changes in sleep
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
  • Feeling of hopelessness or worthlessness

Seasonal affective disorder is more likely to affect women than men and shows up more frequently in younger adults than older adults. However, seasonal depression can affect anyone. For example, those working long hours in a place with very few windows are also more prone to this disorder.

Knowing the most effective ways in treating seasonal affective disorder can make all the difference in having a better quality of life.
Medical treatments may include light therapy, medication, or psychotherapy. Light therapy can elevate your mood, using bright lights to imitate the sun.

People who use light therapy typically sit about two feet away from a lightbox after they wake up for approximately 30 minutes. Talk to your doctor to make sure you’re buying the correct light for your needs.

Antidepressant medication can help regulate the chemical imbalances that occur during the winter months. It is quite common for people with seasonal depression to stop taking their medications once the weather warms up. Antidepressant medications must be proscribed by a licensed physician.

Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is normally what we think of when someone says, “talk therapy.” CBT interventions decrease seasonal depression reoccurrence rates by helping to change negative thought and behavioral patterns.

Lifestyle changes can make all the difference in boosting your mood. Many people tend to have mood shifts in the winter due to less outside activities.
Although more common in the summer months, walks outside are a great way to boost your mood. Going outside during the daylight is particularly useful to take advantage of the sunlight.

The exercise can boost your mood by producing endorphins that you can carry throughout your day.

Many people with seasonal depression oversleep. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule during the winter months is an effective way to combat the winter blues.

Lastly, a balanced diet can be a great way to ensure you’re getting essential vitamins to keep energy levels high. Saying no to carbohydrate cravings, common among individuals with seasonal depression, may be beneficial.

If your seasonal depression symptoms increase substantially, be sure to reach out to a primary care provider for proper treatment. Your mental health influences your physical health and is just as important.

Dr. Balaji Saravanan, MD, MRCPsych(England), FAPA

is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Mercy Health – Lorain. His previous experiences include Cleveland Clinic Physician, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, and Case Western Reserve University. His special interest includes treatment resistant mood disorders, Neuromodulation including ECT and Psychopharmacology.


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