THE BLOG
10/20/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

'Tis the Season (Again): How to Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder

What is seasonal affective disorder, (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder or SAD, is a type of depression that literally follows a seasonal pattern. It systematically appears and disappears at the same time each year. The people who are affected by SAD experience depression-like symptoms beginning in the fall which may continue for five to seven months until spring returns and the days become longer again.

Symptoms of SAD:

Feelings of hopelessness

Irritability

Loss of energy

Social withdrawal

Oversleeping

Loss of interest in activities that usually give you pleasure

Increased appetite/Weight gain

Difficulty concentrating

Thoughts of suicide (in extreme cases)

One of the reasons why people suffer from SAD is that the decrease in daylight exposure in the fall months triggers the human brain into a kind of cerebral confusion. Hence, the built in human clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, is thrown out of whack. Why this happens is not fully understood but many scientists believe that the role of sunlight in the brain's production of certain vital chemicals is affected. For example, chemicals that are produced naturally in the body like serotonin and melatonin, which are key elements responsible for regulating mood and sleep.

So, an increase in levels of serotonin occurs when the brain is exposed to sunlight. Accordingly, high levels of serotonin are associated with elevated mood and low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and anxiety.

Conversely, melatonin is linked to sleeping and it is produced in greater quantities in the brain when it is exposed to darkness. So, shorter days and less light increase production of melatonin which can cause sleepiness and lethargy. Therefore, more darkness (shorter days) can significantly affect your mood.

Approximately, 1 percent to 10 percent of people experience SAD. It's most common in older teens and young adults usually starting in their early 20s. The predominance of SAD varies from region to region. The northern countries in the higher latitudes of the world that experience very long winters with limited light are most affected.

Just like many different types of depression, the symptoms of SAD can range from the mild type to the severe type that can be very debilitating. If left untreated, SAD symptoms can impair social and occupational functioning which could snowball into isolation, withdrawal and sometimes, incapacitation. SAD sufferers are known to take more "sick" days from their jobs during the winter months and also tend to see an increase in appetite and an increased need for sleep.

If you suffer from SAD, here are a few tips to help you cope better:

Spend time outside
Get outside as often as you can. Take a walk every day if you are able. If weather allows, take your lunch break in a park or at an outdoor cafe. On weekends, plan activities that will keep you outdoors for as long as you can. The more light you are exposed to the better.

Reach out to a counselor/therapist
Find a trained clinician specializing in depression who can help you examine potentially distressing issues in your life that might be exacerbating the SAD. A counselor/therapist may help you change negative thinking patterns that leave you in a constant state of worry. Perhaps these unresolved emotional issues could be adding to your depression.

Try light therapy
Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open windows and blinds and remove any exterior obstacles that block sunlight from entering your home. You may also want to sit closer to bright windows at home or in the office. In severe cases, when a great deal of exposure to light is necessary, people buy light boxes and "phototherapy" lamps which they sit under for up to 45 minutes per day.

Exercise
"Move a muscle, change a thought" is a good slogan to remember. Physical activity not only produces endorphins in the brain that make you feel happy but exercise also helps to focus the mind on your body for a change. Remember, the mind cannot be in two places at the same time. Exercise helps to shift your focus.

Consider medication
In combination with talk therapy, anti-depressants can also help to regulate the balance in serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that affect mood and energy. Medication is not for everyone but for many it can be a positive game changer.

Here are a few tips to avoid:

Avoid too much exposure to darkness
Do not stay in bed all morning. Get up at a reasonable time. Do not return to your bed until it's time to sleep in the evening. Staying in bed too long means you will be overly exposed to darkness and your eyes (as mentioned above) need to perceive light to secrete serotonin.

Do not leave your days unstructured
"The idle mind is the devils playground." Don't leave your days unstructured. Don't be a couch potato. Not having anything to do all day long could make you over-magnify small, insignificant problems in your life that you should not be dwelling on. Your mind needs to be challenged every day.

Don't blow off your symptoms as unimportant
Never underestimate the power of a mental condition, even if it's mild. Left untreated your SAD symptoms could escalate and get a lot worse very fast. Don't neglect your symptoms by trying to plow through your day feeling depressed. It is ill-advised to stay depressed all winter long.

Do not isolate
Isolation from others and not reaching out and asking for support is a disaster waiting to happen. No shame in seeking support and guidance. The more alone you are, the worse the depression gets. Depression LOVES secrets.

Don't underestimate insomnia
Without a normal, regular sleeping pattern, your circadian rhythm will be off and that can cause more depression. Do not try and wing it each winter day with minimum sleep spells of four to five hours per night. Even if you think you feel rested, your body needs at least six to eight hours per night.