What is SAD? Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Depression

This description of what SAD is includes the most common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Depression (which is what SAD is!), plus several tips for treating this type of depression.

“Long nights and cold weather days are upon us which means the ‘winter blues’ could be setting in,” says Oz Garcia, Ph.D., co-author of Redesigning 50: The No-Plastic Surgery Guide to 21st Century Age Defiance. “The winter blues are clinically diagnosed as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mild seasonal depression that affects many people during the long and dark winter months.  SAD can affect your mood, energy level, and diet.”

If you’re sad in the long cold winter days and nights, you’re not alone. Luckily, SAD can be treated easily, effectively, and inexpensively — depending, of course, on the degree of your sadness.

What is SAD?

Here’s the best answer from one of my favorite health websites, WebMD.

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that affects a person during the same season each year. If you get depressed in the winter but feel much better in spring and summer, you may have SAD.

Anyone can get SAD, but it is more common in:

  • People who live in areas where winter days are very short or there are big changes in the amount of daylight in different seasons.
  • Women.
  • People between the ages of 15 and 55. The risk of getting SAD for the first time goes down as you age.
  • People who have a close relative with SAD.

I always thought SAD included people who live in cold climates, but I was wrong. I live in British Columbia, Canada – it’s not too cold in the winter, but SAD is definitely a struggle for many of us! SAD is what gets me down in February or March, after three or four months of gray skies and rain. No snow…just no sunlight.

Do You Have SAD? Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Carbohydrate cravings

During the fall and winter, the signal to the area of the brain that registers a sensation of fullness is suppressed.  Our brain signals encourage us to eat and gain weight in order to insulate our bodies and survive the cold weather.  Since it’s common for people to gain between five and ten pounds every winter, one way to treat seasonal depression is to deal with your carb cravings.

Depression (which is what SAD is all about)

Connections between mood and the seasons are well documented even in healthy individuals. During cold winter days our serotonin levels drop due to lack of exposure to light.  Low serotonin levels can cause depression.  Serotonin levels increase with exposure to bright light — so one effective way to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder is to get as much light exposure as possible.

You may also gain weight, feel grumpy, and lose interest in your usual activities.

What Are Some Treatments for SAD?

Natural sunlight – or a light therapy lamp or box

Since SAD symptoms are triggered by lack of light, it’s important to get as much sunlight as you can. If you live in gray rainy Vancouver BC, think about getting a light therapy lamp or light box.

A light box provides a measured amount of balanced spectrum light equivalent to standing outdoors on a clear spring day. This has been shown to help regulate the body clock. The light from the box can help synchronize sleep/wake patterns.

To learn more about the effects of light therapy, read Seasonal Depression – How Light Therapy Helps.

Or, check out the most popular light therapy box on Amazon: Philips’ Wake-up Light.

Make connections with other people

I’m not talking about connecting with people at Christmas parties or holiday events! A natural treatment for SAD is to make connections that renew your spirit. Interact with people less fortunate than you, perhaps by volunteering at a shelter or hospital. Connect spiritually at your church or temple. Connect with nature by taking a walk through a park or along the coast. Part of what makes SAD worse is feeling isolated.

Take good care of yourself

You’ve heard it a zillion times: get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise for at least 20 minutes a day. Exercise, fresh air and natural light are a powerful combination for elevating your spirits.

Set reasonable expectations

We often set irrationally high standards especially during the holidays: shopping, cooking, baking, decorating, sending cards, and attending every event we’re invited to. It can be hard enough to keep up even if you’re feeling great! Give yourself a break-and permission to say no. Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder can involve prioritizing who you want to be around and how to spend your time.

Acknowledge that you feel sad

Research shows that when we are able to identify and label how we are feeling, we activate other parts of the brain-with very healthy and positive effects. Science shows us that if you label your feelings and express them to someone else, both your mood and your immune system will benefit. So now that you know what Seasonal Affective Disorder is, you might want to ask people in your life if they experience it, too.

Train your brain to be positive

If you focus too much on what’s wrong in your life, your brain can get stuck in a “negative” rut. Fortunately, with just a little effort, you can condition your brain to balance your moods and overcome seasonal depression disorder. One way is to create a daily “gratitude list.” Every day, take a minute or two to make a conscious effort to name things in life you are grateful for: your family, dog or cat, warm bed, a hot shower, ocean waves, music, coffee, and so on. You’ll condition your brain for appreciation and happiness.

Be kind to others – and gentle with yourself

I bet you didn’t think an article on what SAD is would include a paragraph on being nice to yourself! But what ranks high in the studies of what helps people to be optimistic and healthy is helping others. Recently, a customer in the drive-thru line at a Pittsburgh-area Starbucks paid for the coffee of the customer behind her. That customer was so pleased that she then paid for person behind her. The chain continued for two hours! You don’t have to make a grand gesture. To cope with SAD feelings, smile at someone on the street, hold a door open, wave someone into you lane on the freeway. Just try it!

Laugh – even if you feel too sad

Laughter is invigorating. It recharges your battery. There are all kinds of studies showing how good laughter is for your brain, your health and your immune system.  It’s good for your mood, your immune system, and holiday depression. To overcome seasonal depression disorder, find a reason to laugh every day — all the better if you can find the humor in your relatives’ annoying habits or the little things that usually stress you out!

Quick Tips for Coping With SAD Feelings

A few more ways to deal with Seasonal Affective Depression:

  • Look into a natural mood enhancer, such as Natrol’s 5-HTP (my massage therapist raves about it – she would be sad and lost without it, she says).
  • Avoid sugary snacks. Eat whole grains, vegetables and fruits because they stabilize your energy.
  • Exercise regularly. Staying fit and keeps your metabolism burning fat and calories, and lifts your mood.
  • Eat low-fat dairy products. When cooking hearty dishes in the winter months; reach for skim milk instead of whole milk. This natural treatment for Seasonal Affective Depression will help keep your weight down, too!
  • Avoid butter, margarine, and high salt intake.  Season your foods with olive oil, fresh herbs and spices instead. The food will taste better, and you’ll avoid extra fat and calories.
  • Get enough vitamin D – take supplements if you don’t see sunlight for at least 20 minutes a day.
  • Look into NatureBright’s Light Therapy Lamp (pictured).

Simply knowing what SAD is and how to deal with it doesn’t make feelings of hopelessness or sadness just disappear! If you know you need more help than a light therapy lamp, call your doctor or make an appointment with a therapist who has experience helping people cope with Seasonal Affective Depression.

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Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen
Shalom! I can't give you advice, but please feel free to share your thoughts below. I'm a writer in Vancouver; my degrees are in Psychology, Education, and Social Work. I live with my husband, two dogs, and cat. We can't have children, and we trust in God's love, grace, and wisdom. Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." - Matthew 11:28.

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2 Responses

  1. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sam! Knowing what SAD is, is the first step to finding the best treatments. A light box is such a great solution because it’s easy and inexpensive.

  2. Sam says:

    This is a great article, my mother actually suffers from SAD and she uses one of those light boxes when it gets dark at around 5pm whilst she goes about her daily activities. It can be quite upsetting, especially when people don’t treat SAD as the serious disorder that it is.

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