Life slows down in winter. The days grow shorter, light becomes scarce, and we respond by planting ourselves in front of the television or hibernating under the covers, counting the days until spring arrives. But how do you know when a seasonal slump may actually be more serious problem? Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common category of depression that emerges in particular seasons of the year. While the vast majority of people notice SAD symptoms during the winter months, some people experience a summertime version of the disorder.
Nearly 20 percent of U.S. adult population experiences some level of seasonal depression. SAD is four times more common in women than in men, and the average age of onset is 20. People with SAD experience a drastic change in their overall mood during this time of the year, and in most cases, depression, anxiety, and fatigue occur. Other common symptoms include irritability, feelings of despair, decreased interest in socializing, inability to concentrate, increased appetite, and weight gain.
What causes seasonal affective disorder? SAD has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain prompted by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. Causes and risk factors may include:
- Low serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects our moods. Some say that a lack of sunlight, due to the shortened hours of daylight, causes a decrease in serotonin levels and thus causes seasonal affective disorder.
- Lack of Vitamin D. Low levels of Vitamin D, also resulting from reduced exposure to sunlight, may play a role in the development of SAD.
- Location. Living further away from the equator is often associated with seasonal depressive disorder.
- Increases in the hormone melatonin. Melatonin regulates sleep patterns and moods. Some suggest that, due to a decrease of daylight hours, melatonin increases, causing greater fatigue and possibly depression.
- Change in circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal clock that regulates our sleep/wake cycle. It is widely believed that lower levels of sunlight in the winter throw off the circadian rhythm in some people, causing seasonal affective disorder.
- Genetic inclination. People who have a family history of seasonal affective disorder may be more susceptible this depressive illness.
There are a number of effective treatment options for seasonal depression:
- Phototherapy, or light therapy, is a commonly prescribed treatment for seasonal depression. The treatment involves sitting in front of a “light box” for approximately thirty minutes daily. Research has shown that light therapy can relieve the symptoms of seasonal depression in as many as 70% of cases.
- Anti-depressant medications are highly effective in treating winter depression, and have been shown to improve mood, energy, and sleep patterns. One of the ways in which these medications work is by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
- Neurofeedback falls into the general domain of biofeedback, in which physiological cues are used as feedback to change and normalize certain regulatory functions. When you’re affected by SAD, changes are occurring within the brain that produce the symptoms you’re experiencing. Neurofeedback aims to correct these brain imbalances by training the brain to produce healthy brainwaves naturally, easing the symptoms of SAD. Neurofeedback improves memory, focus, and mood, which improves a person’s overall performance.
At The Better Brain Center, we recognize the symptoms of SAD and integrate therapy components into the neurofeedback sessions. For example, while doing a neurofeedback session, which involves sitting in front of a computer screen while enjoying a game or movie while your brain is actively engaged in re-training itself to work more efficiently, we would also use a light box to combat that aspect of the depression. In the brain, we may recognize an increase in slow wave activity in the frontal lobes, which may contribute to feeling sluggish and unmotivated increasing those feelings of depression and having low energy. The neurofeedback protocols focus on regulating different amplitudes that are dysregulated, while the light therapy combats the diminished sunshine.
- Changing certain behaviors can also be helpful in reducing the symptoms of seasonal depression. If SAD is getting your down, consider incorporating these simple strategies:
- Brighten up your indoor environment. Open the blinds, sit near a window as often as you can, and turn on the lights.
- Get social. It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but it’s important to regularly engage in activities with friends and family to ward off feelings of isolation.
- Go outside. Make it a point to get outside in the sunlight for at least a portion of the day, weather permitting. Take a walk with a co-worker during your lunch break or sit outside and read the paper.
- Get plenty of sleep on a consistent schedule. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep daily.
- Take a vacation. If you have the ability to take trips to warm sunny places during the gloomiest parts of the year, take advantage of it.
Whatever treatment plan you decide on, it’s important to combine it with supportive techniques to help manage your seasonal depression symptoms and hopefully prevent them from returning next year.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Executive Director at The Better Brain Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 833-964-8483 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.