Fall season brings the gifts of awe-inspiring scenery. Trees ablaze in beautiful leaves of yellow, red and orange. Crisp apples ready for baking. Golden yellow corn fields ready for harvest. Walks on trails in crisp cool temps calm the soul. Earthy scent in the air grounds our emotions to focus attention on the present. Nature’s cues that bring gentleness, calm, peace and restful days.
Fall season, with its abundance of seasonal gifts, is revered by many, as most precious of all seasons. For others, the fall season announces the close of warm weather, sunlight and floral scented breezes.
As the season changes, people may begin to feel anxiety, discontent, sadness and in some cases a feeling of dread. Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) is a term used to describe change in emotions as the seasons change.
It’s more than just the winter blues.
Unpleasant feelings that surface during the fall season are common and can vary in degree of impact. If you experience unpleasant symptoms as the days get shorter and the nights grow longer, take heart, you are not alone.
Types of Seasonal Affect Disorder
There are two types of SAD: fall-onset SAD and spring-onset SAD.
Fall Seasonal Affect Disorder also known as winter depression, begins with the decrease in daylight hours of the fall season extending into early winter season. The cause for SAD is not fully understood. Research generally supports the theory of decrease exposure to sunlight affects serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain. The decrease of sunlight may cause a decrease in serotonin levels and increase melatonin levels. Thus, our body appears to be readying for hibernation.
Specific fall common symptoms of Seasonal Affect Disorder may include:
- decreased social activity-hibernating
- increased sleep
- increased carbohydrate cravings and intake/weight gain
- depressed mood
Symptoms usually lighten, in time with the sun, as the days grow longer and the sun brighter.
Summer Seasonal Affect Disorder also known as Reversal Seasonal Affective Disorder, may be less common than fall SAD but still very impactful for many. Symptoms onset in spring and last through the summer months. Summer SAD symptoms usually lighten as the days get cooler and shorter.
Symptoms of summer SAD may include:
- restlessness and agitation
- trouble sleeping
- poor appetite or weight loss
- possible aggressive behavior
It’s important to note a distinction with SAD symptom onset and improvement occur about the same time every year.
It is also important to acknowledge severity of symptoms. Mild symptoms can be annoying and make it a bit difficult in performing our daily activities and meeting commitments. NIMH indicated SAD may impact those with an existing depression diagnosis more severely. Thus, management of symptoms with your care provider is very important. A diagnosis can only be made by your medical professional. If you think you may be depressed, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Treatment for Seasonal Affect Disorder
Currently there is no permanent cure for Seasonal Affect Disorder. Therefore, current treatment focus is on symptom reduction and generally include the following treatments.
- Vitamin D deficiency is often identified with Seasonal Affect Disorder. Consult with your medical professional. A diet rich in sources of vitamin D may be recommended or a vitamin D supplement may be prescribed.
- Light therapy. If natural sunlight is not available, light therapy is a generally agreed upon and utilized treatment that is effective and safe for most users. Light therapy treatment is exposure to a full spectrum light source for up to 30-45 minutes a day. The purpose is to recover lost sunlight during the fall and winter months. SAD lamps are readily available in stores and online. Concern for use may include people with eye-related problems and people taking medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight. As with any new treatment, consult your medical professional to determine if this treatment is safe for you.
- Individual/group therapy and wellness classes. There are several therapies that can reframe thoughts, provide coping tools and build skills. Be clear on your goals and seek the provider and type of therapy that best fits you and your goals. Cognitive behavioral or interpersonal therapy help change the distortions in thoughts that may be held about the self, other and environment, improving the outlook and feelings about changing seasons. Group therapy provides social interaction and support while working through and processing topic issues. Art therapy, yoga, and meditation are worth a mention as possible outlets off expression and socialization.
- Medication. Antidepressant Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescription medications that can help correct the chemical imbalance that may lead to SAD. SSRIs have been effective in improving mood. As with all medications, consult your medical professional to determine if medication is right for you.
Things to get started on relieving your SAD symptoms
There are also things you can do at home to help relieve Seasonal Affect Disorder symptoms. Those include:
- Exposure to sunlight. Try to get more exposure to natural sunlight when sunlight is available. Sitting in a nice southern exposure window can help relieve symptoms.
- Nutrition and exercise are very important to emotional well- being. Try to get physical activity at least 3 times a week. Eat healthy well-balanced meals. Limit alcohol consumption and recreational drugs as they are depressants.
- Connect with people over video chat or in person when possible. It is important to check-in with supportive friends.
- Plan activities that make you feel better. Meeting up with friends or family, volunteering, joining a maker’s space—activities that bring you joy, engage your creativity and expression.
- Have empathy, understanding and compassion for yourself and others. Delay any important decisions that affect you and your loved ones. Set attainable and realistic goals. Set priority on work-life balance.
Seasonal Affect Disorder may be a gentle reminder to slow down in the winter and take some time to savor a soothing cup of tea and in the summer, spring into action with the energy of life and abundance. Anticipating the emotions that change with the seasonal pattern will allow for active efforts to minimize intensity and duration of symptoms. Planning activities and self-care are so important in minimizing symptoms. Plan to start a yoga class in the fall or set social dates for the upcoming months such as crafting with your friends. These are all good choices that provide a social outlet and opportunity for connection and joy. Choose what works for you. Most importantly, greeting the day with gratitude. This helps remind us of all the blessings we have been given in this life thus far and the opportunity to spread kindness. Thankful for the positives in your life. Thankful for another day to do good. Thankful for another day to be a good human.