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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a subtype of depression that typically begins in the fall and can last throughout the winter. SAD can cause changes in energy levels, sleep schedules, appetite, mood and others. While individuals can experience these symptoms differently, it’s important to validate them and learn how you can cope.

Teen looks out of a window during winter

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it’s likely that more individuals will struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) than in years prior. COVID-19 has introduced major life changes and trauma that can easily exacerbate the severity of seasonal depression. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling and evaluate what you need to help with your symptoms.

5 signs you may be struggling with SAD

1.    You're sleepy throughout the day and also struggle to sleep at night.

2.    Your eating habits have changed—you're eating irregularly and craving starchy, sugary foods.

3.    You're not interested in activities or social gatherings—you'd rather stay home.

4.    You feel hopeless and unmotivated to meet my daily responsibilities and seek out new opportunities.

5.    Feelings of stress, anxiety and irritability are occurring daily.

Researchers have found that SAD is most likely attributable to three main factors: decreased production of serotonin, increased production of melatonin, and irregular circadian rhythms. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates the body’s mood. As the amount of daylight during winter decreases, your body’s ability to produce serotonin also decreases. A lack of serotonin can lead to symptoms of depression. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates and enhances your sleep. While the relationship between melatonin and SAD is not clear, we know that melatonin production is directly correlated with darkness. As your exposure to darkness increases, such as when you sleep, so too does the production of melatonin. However, during winter months when there is less daylight and more time spent indoors, melatonin production can increase, causing symptoms of fatigue and low energy throughout the day. Circadian rhythms, also known as your body’s internal clock, also respond to changes in sleep schedules as a result of longer, darker days. This can cause symptoms of abnormal eating and fluctuating moods.

5 ways to cope with SAD

1.    Find time to exercise during the day—this will increase your energy levels and exposure to daylight.

2.    Eat nutrient-dense meals regularly—try your best to schedule your mealtimes and to include seasonal fruits and vegetables for long-lasting energy.

3.    Keep up with your daily responsibilities. It might help to write out your weekly tasks in a notepad or calendar. Whether they're related to school, work or your social life, writing them down can hold you accountable for the week ahead.

4.    Try mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness practice is the ability to be fully present. This will allow you to be more aware and intentional throughout the day.

5.    Seek professional help—if you feel like you’ve exhausted every option on your own or your symptoms are worsening, please reach out for more support. You are not alone.

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It’s normal to experience changes in your mood as the seasons change—however, it’s important to recognize if your symptoms are worsening. COVID-19 has complicated how we are able to engage in others and carry out our daily responsibilities. If you’re struggling, don’t wait. Charlie Health is here to support teens, young adults and their families through providing personalized, online mental health treatments. Call today to find out which treatment program is right for you.  

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