Brace Yourself – Autumn is Coming (And What You Can Do About It)

Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (also known as seasonal depression) affects an estimated 10 million individuals in the United States every year, and another 10 to 20 percent show mild signs of SAD. The typical age of onset is somewhere between the ages of 18 and 30, and the disorder affects women four times more frequently than men. Some symptoms are severe enough to affect an individual’s quality of life, with more than five percent of those with SAD result in hospitalization. Regardless, SAD can make the normal changing of seasons extremely unpleasant and wreak havoc on an individual’s mental health.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) typically makes one think of the colder, wintry months of the year. You are most likely familiar with common slumps in mood due to fewer daylight hours and cold weather, but the truth is, SAD can affect different people at different transitional times of the year. Even autumn, a season we connect with pleasant things like beautiful colors, refreshingly crisp weather, etc. is no exception.

In most cases, seasonal affective disorder symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Less commonly, people with the opposite pattern have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. In either case, symptoms may start out mild, but then become more severe as the season progresses.

SAD, not Crazy                 

SAD is a type of recurring depression related to changes in seasons, and mood volatility sparked by shifts in the weather can really put you through the ringer. It is a major culprit when it comes to robbing someone of motivation and joie de vivre, and it typically begins and ends for an individual at about the same time every year.

The important thing is that you acknowledge it for what it is. Don’t write it off, and don’t let people tell you that it’s merely a “passing case of the blues” that you just have to push yourself through on your own. There are some key things you can do to manage this mental illness-related issue. Let’s discuss.

The Lowdown on SAD Symptoms

What does SAD look like?  If you suspect you suffer from seasonal affectation, you’re probably familiar with the most common symptoms. Here is a more inclusive (though not exhaustive) list:

  • Notably low energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and/or guilt
  • Feelings of sluggishness and/or spiked agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depressed mood throughout most of the day, just about every day
  • Loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Sleep problems (particularly oversleeping in the autumn/winter)
  • Significant fluctuations in appetite and/or weight (often coupled with cravings for high-carbohydrate foods)
  • Frequent suicidal thoughts and/or fixation on death

Note that for individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder, spring/summer SAD can invoke manic episodes, or sometimes a less intense form of mania known as hypomania. Autumn/winter-onset SAD can mean long stretches of depressive episodes.

Also…

Specific cause(s) of SAD continue to remain a mystery. Some experts point to an excess of melatonin (a sleep-regulating hormone) in the body, and fewer daylight hours during winter are known to boost the production of melatonin.  More melatonin means less energy and more lethargic states. Reduced levels of sunlight can also disrupt the body’s internal clock, leading to heightened depression.

Another suspect in the prolonging of depressed moods is difficulty in regulating levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter directly related to regulating an individual’s mood. A significant lack of natural vitamin D, believed to play a role in serotonin activity, has also been labeled to be a cause of depressive symptoms.

Diagnosis

Ultimately, SAD is not managed as a stand-alone disorder, but rather as a specific type of depression with a recurring seasonal pattern. For a reliable SAD diagnosis, an individual must show symptoms of major depression that coincide with specific seasons, for two consecutive years, at least. This seasonal depression should also be shown to be dominant over other types of depression.

Do You Need Medical Attention?

Days of “down” moods and feeling blue are normal, especially during the winter. If your depressed mood lasts for days at a time and you can’t seem to get enjoyment out of your regular activities and hobbies, you should definitely seek clinical help. It becomes even more critical that you get help if your appetite and sleep patterns are disrupted; turning to alcohol for comfort and relaxation instead of addressing the disorder can lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

Some Things You Can do to Help Yourself

  1. Just Breathe

An easy method to help keep yourself grounded is to practice mindful breathing. At your desk or while you’re driving, inhale slowly and deeply for a count of five, hold your breath for five, and then slowly exhale for another five counts. Yoga and mindfulness meditation can certainly keep you in practice with steady breathing, as you want to avoid shallow breathing which can make you hyperventilate.  And that will only kick your body into heightened alert “fight or flight” mode.

  1. Get Your Vitamin D and Magnesium

Vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to anxiety and depression. After the Summer Solstice on June 21 in the northern hemisphere, daily doses of sunshine (natural Vitamin D) slowly begin to decline. There are Vitamin D receptors located all throughout your body (e.g., brain, heart, muscles, immune system, etc.), and when there is a shortage of it, your body will start to panic. Your body needs plenty of Vitamin D all throughout your system to function properly. You can also invest in a Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp, which simulates sunlight indoors.

Magnesium is a mineral with a definite calming effect, and which helps the central nervous system. Calming your nervous system is a great way to reduce inclinations to anxiety and panic. Dark, leafy greens like spinach, chard, and kale are great ways to get your magnesium every day, as is dark chocolate (though careful not to get used to too much sugar!).

  1. Simplify

This one can be difficult to remember, especially for A-type personalities. Do not overextend yourself in regard to extracurricular activities! Pushing yourself harder while feeling a lack of energy will only exhaust your body, make you prone to illness, and drive your mood downward more.

When you recognize your SAD kicking in, eliminate every unnecessary activity, responsibility, or stressor that you can. Focus your energy on doing the things you must like work and/or school, and let go of the rest.

  1. Challenge Yourself (in Non-stressful Ways)

Setting goals and achieving them can be good for you mentally and psychologically. A brain that is used is a happy brain. Just make sure that those goals decrease your stress levels, rather than increase them.

Rather than getting involved in so many things and overcommitting yourself to too many activities, pick a goal such as working out for 30 minutes a day for the next month, practicing a musical instrument, or making time to read a good book every week. Learning how to cook some new meals for yourself can also be a boost, as you more mindfully get the nutrients you need. Cooking can be challenging and satisfying, just not mentally exhausting.

  1. Treating Allergies

Autumn and spring are very allergy-prone seasons for a significant number of people, and grappling with allergies on a regular basis can contribute to anxiety and depression. Being aware of this dynamic can go a long way to putting your mind at ease, because you’ll keep yourself from thinking that something is “wrong” with you.

Allergies can attack your immune system, and rightly so, as research has shown that the same biological processes involved in fighting off an infection are the same as for someone dealing with mania or depression. It has also been shown that volatile allergy symptoms during times of low and high pollen coincide with spikes in reports of anxiety and depression (did you know there is a spike in suicides during spring every year?).

Are you concerned about severe mood swings that come and go with the seasons? You’re not alone! If you or someone close to you need to talk to someone about mental health issues that seem overwhelming, we can help. Consider reaching out to our expert team at Solara Mental Health at 844-600-9747.

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