As we begin to move into the winter season, mental health becomes as important as ever. Winter means less daylight for many of us, directly affecting our mood and energy levels. Less light exposure can directly cause a chemical imbalance in our brains. This natural shift can often lead to seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), otherwise known as seasonal depression, is an overwhelming mental health issue affecting around 1 in 20 adults in the US. This disorder is much more serious than the commonly used term “winter blues” depicts. The disruption of our normal brain chemistry and hormone cycles due to the shift in daylight provides a physiological basis for depression. Symptoms may start out mild, but can very quickly worsen over the course of winter. Here are ten common signs that may precede the onset of seasonal affective disorder.
- Feeling Hopeless: Many of us have bad days where we feel as if nothing is going our way. When we begin to feel hopeless and worthless as well, we can enter a cruel cycle as we continuously reinforce these negative thoughts and emotions. Extended periods of time in which we feel we have nothing to offer are common indicators of SAD. It can be difficult to overcome this mindset alone during a dark, cold winter.
- Feeling Guilty: Depression is often associated with debilitating feelings of guilt. The guilt often surrounds relationships with the people closest to us. Feelings of incompetence and forgetful tendencies contribute to this guilt as well as depression. It’s important to remember that depression is non-discriminatory. Depression affects all people no matter race, gender, or occupation and can be worsened during these troubling winter months.
- Low Energy Levels: Sunlight exposure directly affects our body’s circadian rhythm. The shorter winter days often throw off our natural body patterns leading to lower energy levels and negative moods. Feelings of exhaustion and few desires to engage in activities are often associated with depression. The lack of engagement can exacerbate depression symptoms and leave you feeling tired and unwanted. Low energy levels are a common sign of a seasonal affective disorder.
- Hypersomnia: The link between depression and sleep has been well-established through numerous research studies and experiments. This two-way link is one of the most common symptoms of depression. Irregular sleep, whether too much or too little, can induce depression, and depression can lead to irregular sleep. Sunlight helps regulate sleep/wake hormones in your body, and the change in temperature and daylight associated with winter can interfere with these processes. Pay attention to oversleeping (hypersomnia) and try to adhere to a sleep schedule.
- Weight Gain: Weight gain is a common sign of SAD. Studies have found that people who suffer from depression are significantly more likely to experience weight gain and obesity during their depressive episodes. Mental and physical health have a very close relationship, and the deterioration of one can quickly take down the other. Doing your best to stay active and healthy during this pandemic-affected winter is a great way to stay positive and protect your mental and physical well-being.
- Carbohydrate Cravings: The curious connection between a craving for carbohydrates and depressive moods is explained through the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. This hormone plays an important role in the regulation of carbohydrate vs protein intake. Serotonin, however, is also involved in body functions such as sleep and mood regulation. Thus, many who suffer from depressive episodes seek comfort through carbohydrate consumption. This directly leads to weight gain and has been frequently observed in SAD patients.
- Poor Appetite: While depression leads to overeating for many, others may experience a loss in appetite. The connection between appetite and depression has a detailed physiological basis that is an area of ongoing research and study. SAD can cause lowered hunger associated with lower energy levels and a general disinterest in life. This type of behavioral change is commonly associated with depressive disorders and elevated anxiety levels. Change in appetite is a frequent sign of seasonal affective disorder.
- Difficulty Concentrating: Difficulty concentrating on daily tasks is a frequent symptom of many depressive disorders. Depression can take a severe physical toll on the brain, specifically the hippocampus. Depressive episodes have been associated with shrinking of the hippocampus that may last years after the disease is in remission. This directly affects attention span and causes an increased difficulty in concentrating on longer tasks.
- Regular Suicidal Thoughts: Suicidal thoughts are a major indicator of depression, but not all people who suffer from depression have suicidal thoughts. Commonly associated with feelings of worthlessness, ideas about self-harm and suicide are a major cause for concern. The chaos surrounding everyday life can easily overwhelm anyone.
- Anxiety: Depression and anxiety are two of the most prevalent mental health disorders and are commonly linked with each other. The deterioration of brain chemistry associated with both can very quickly build up and affect the quality of life. The aftermath of COVID has taken its toll around the world and will continue to do so as the pandemic continues. It’s critical to talk to people you trust about any feelings of anxiety or helplessness.
The symptoms listed above are simply 10 common signs associated with lower mental health levels, especially during the cold, dark winter months. It’s important to remember that any sort of depressive disorder can vary greatly between individuals – someone suffering from SAD may have all or none of the listed signs.
Depression affects all people, and more importantly, depression is treatable. Talk to the people you trust and reach out for help and support. SAD is often misdiagnosed in the presence of infections and other illnesses, so it is important to seek the advice of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned. It’s important to confide in people you love; mental health is a conversation that should be welcomed and prioritized by everybody.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255