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Seasonal Affective Disorder(SAD): Why Do We Feel Sad In Winters?

  • timeline Deepanwita Roy, Clinical Psychologist
  • 4 Min Read

Feeling low? Low on energy? Disinterested in doing things? Does the emergence of winter may seem to be ‘upsetting’ you? Be assured that you’re not alone.

In India, more than 10 million people experience similar symptoms and ailments which are often self-diagnosable as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. It’s not necessarily something to worry about, but if your symptoms crop up around the same time each year, have a real impact on your quality of life, and improve when the season changes, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Most often the symptoms of SAD are similar to milder depression, hence it’s often called seasonal depression as well. SAD usually occurs during the same time of the year, usually during winter or in summer. SAD is distinguished from depression by the remission of symptoms in the spring and summer months (or winter and fall in the case of summer SAD).

Common symptoms include:

  • Depressed mood, low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Feeling angry, irritable, stressed, or anxious
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Changes in sleeping pattern
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy; reduced sex drive
  • Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair

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Like depression, the severity of SAD symptoms can vary from person to person- depending on genetic vulnerability and geographic location.

While the exact cause of SAD is unknown, most theories suggest that it is due to the reduction of daylight hours in winter. The shorter days and reduced exposure to sunlight in winter affect the body by disrupting its natural circadian rhythms. Also, in winter, your body produces too much melatonin, leaving you feeling drowsy, and low on energy.

Similarly, reduced sunlight lowers the body’s production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood. A deficit may lead to depression and adversely affect your sleep, appetite, memory, and sexual desire.

Risk factors

The seasonal affective disorder can affect anyone but more common to people living in a colder region where you experience less sunlight in the winter and longer days during the summer. Other risk factors include:

  • Gender. Women are four times more likely to experience symptoms of SAD than men; however, men often experience more severe symptoms. 
  • Age. In most cases, young adults or people aged 18 to 30 years are more likely to experience SAD. 
  • Your family history. Having relatives who’ve experienced SAD or another type of depression puts you at greater risk.

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Self-help strategies to combat SAD

  1. Get as much natural sunlight as possible. Whenever possible, get outside during daylight hours and expose yourself to the sun. Sunlight, even in the small doses that winter allows, can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood. Simultaneously increase the amount of natural light in your home and workplace by opening blinds and drapes and sitting near windows. 
  2. Stick to a schedule. Keeping a regular schedule will expose you to light at consistent and predictable times. 
  3. Get active and spend more time outdoors. Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside if you can stay warm enough. Regular physical activity and exercising is a powerful way to fight seasonal depression, especially if you’re able to exercise outside in natural sunlight. Regular exercises can boost serotonin, endorphins, and feel-good brain chemicals.
  4. Eat the right diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings.
  5. Practice relaxation techniques. This will help you to manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. 
  6. Do something you enjoy (or used to) every day. While you can’t force yourself to have fun or experience pleasure, you can push yourself to do things, even when you don’t feel like it. You might be surprised at how much better you feel once you’re out and about. 
  7. Stay connected. Call or connect with your friends virtually or in-person, participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Being around people will boost your mood. Volunteer your time in helping others, meet new people with a common interest by taking online classes, joining different clubs, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. 
  8. Try aromatherapy. Good smells and essential oils influence the area of the brain that’s responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock that influences sleep and appetite. 
  9. Maintain a journal. Writing down your thoughts can have a positive effect on your mood. It can help you get some of your negative feelings out of your system. Plan on writing for about 20 minutes on most days of the week, maybe at night when you can reflect on what all happened throughout the day. 
  10. Seek professional help. The most common treatment for SAD is a light therapy using a lightbox or dawn simulators for 20-60 minutes daily. Other treatments include medication (antidepressants and SSRIs) and psychotherapy with mental health professionals. 

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Depression, whether it’s seasonal or not, isn’t something that you have to deal with on your own. Download the MFine app and talk to a mental health professional online today. Your consultations will be instant, secure and private.

  • timeline
  • Written by

    Deepanwita Roy, Clinical Psychologist

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