Commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), nearly 10 million Americans suffer each year from seasonal depression and another 10-20% may have a mild case of SAD. When the days get colder and shorter, the impact of less sunlight can directly affect the mood of many individuals.
Some experts believe that mental distress is caused by two specific chemicals in the brain, serotonin, and melatonin. These two chemicals play a big role in regulating our sleep-wake cycles, mood, and energy levels. But when there are long hours of darkness, it can increase levels of melatonin and decrease levels of serotine, leading to a biological imbalance and depression.
Women between the ages of 18 and 45 with a history of depression are more likely to experience SAD, and about 80% of SAD suffers are women of child-bearing age. Those with a history of depression and those with a family history of SAD are also more prone to mental illness. If you’ve ever struggled with severe depression in the wintertime, here are five warning signs that may indicate it’s time to seek treatment.
1. Mood Changes
Seasonal depression is much more than the “winter blues.” It’s not just a sadness that the holidays or vacation are over and it’s time to head back to work. It’s far more serious. In many ways, it can feel like a fog that sets in from November until April. If you notice your mood changes every year at the same time, it’s a good indication that you may suffer from seasonal depression. If you are feeling sad or have an irritable mood for at least two weeks during the winter months, this could be a warning sign. In addition to sadness, you may also have a feeling of hopelessness, worthlessness, and low energy. You may be inclined to be critical of yourself, be more sensitive to criticism, and get upset much faster than any other time of the year.
Although light therapy, Vitamin D supplements, and getting outdoors during the day can help improve your mood, they won’t completely solve seasonal depression. If you notice your mood interferes with your daily ability to function, it could be time to seek help.
2. Little or No Energy or Motivation
When the sun is shining it’s naturally easier to have a little extra pep in your step. But on cold, dark, winter days, energy levels can fall. That is completely normal. Many of us would rather hide away under a warm blanket in the winter than be out and about in the wind and snow. But when little or no energy leads to a feeling of hopelessness, the combination can be startling. Low energy, tiredness, no motivation, and an unexplained feeling of fatigue are all symptoms of SAD.
3. Difficulty Concentrating
Those with SAD may find that they can’t concentrate on their schoolwork or at work. Their grades may fail, or poor performance at work could mean missed deadlines, lost sales, and angry clients. They may be more forgetful and have to ask the same questions over again. Those around them may start to wonder if the person is okay and become concerned by a change in their behavior. Too much sleep from seasonal depression can have a detrimental effect on the brain, leading to difficulty concentrating, a reduction in cognitive abilities, and a decline in reasoning skills.
4. Changes in Eating and Sleeping Habits
A lack of motivation and a feeling like there is no purpose to get out of bed may be the reason why a person with seasonal depression sleeps more than normal. Excessive sleeping can make it hard for a student or employee to get up for work on time, leading to more problems at school or work. The optimal amount of sleep to keep your brain functioning well and performing at its best is seven to eight hours every night. Those who regularly sleep more will more than likely have impaired concentration, judgment, and overall performance.
Additionally, a person with season depression may crave and seek out sugary snacks and drinks. The more carbs a person eats, the more insulin their body releases. This promotes amino acid absorption, leaving tryptophan in the blood. Carbs also cause the body to naturally make serotonin – that same “feel good” feeling that the hormone produces. Because of that, those with seasonal depression may overeat “comfort foods,” which can lead to weight gain during the wintertime. Feelings of self-doubt, worthlessness, and self-criticism can be exacerbated by weight gain.
5. Decrease in Overall Enjoyment
People with SAD spend less time doing the things they once enjoyed. This includes going out with friends, participating in social activities and extracurricular opportunities. They simply don’t want to be social or engage with others. Fatigue and lack of self-confidence play a large role in their disinterest in social events. Those with seasonal depression also feel as though they don’t do things as well as they used to, which makes them feel guilty or as if doing anything isn’t satisfying. Their overall lack of interest in life is a sign that they have seasonal depression. Studies show that maintaining healthy relationships can play a key role in supporting mental health and may aid in overcoming the isolation that comes with depression. When you are mentally ill, feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and anxiety can be overwhelming, but caring friends can help those struggling to get the help they need.
If you are experiencing any of these signs, it may be time to get help. Find a mental health professional to help you cope; it is easier than you think, so take the first step today.