Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Imagine you’re sitting someplace peaceful, soaking in the gentle warmth of the sun’s rays (don’t worry, you have sunscreen on). Imagine you’re able to do this for 10-15 minutes uninterrupted. How would you feel? According to recent research you would feel relaxed and happier. Those of us who live further from the equator know the positive effects a sunny day, or vacation, can have on our mental and physical well-being. The positive effect of a certain amount of sun is backed up by research as well.
The sun’s rays help us produce Vitamin D, an important nutrient for our bones, blood cells, and immune system. Vitamin D also helps with the absorption and use of calcium and phosphorus, both of which are crucial to multiple functions in our bodies.
Sunlight also helps with setting our internal clocks, which can help improve sleep. Exposure to sunlight helps improve eye health. Perhaps most importantly, sunlight boosts serotonin, a chemical in our brains that increases energy and helps keep us positive, focused, and calm. Knowing that these are the benefits of sun exposure, it is no surprise that when the hours of sunlight wane during the winter months we can start to feel sluggish, tired, and even depressed.
Season Affective Disorder (SAD) is characterized by symptoms such as sadness (nearly every day), anxiety, carb cravings/weight gain, extreme fatigue, feeling hopeless or worthless, trouble concentrating, irritation, and loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities. Similar to Depression, SAD is triggered by the change from Summer to Fall and improves with the increased sunlight that comes with Spring. Far beyond the “Winter Blues” SAD affects how we think and feel in our daily lives. It particularly affects people who live further from the equator where there is significantly less sunlight in the Winter than the Summer, and those who live in cloudy regions.
Seasonal Affective Disorder may be caused by many things. The most likely culprits are:
A change in our biological clocks due to decreased hours of sunlight
An imbalance in brain chemicals (including serotonin)
A Vitamin D deficiency (easily tested by your Primary Care Physician)
Overproduction in Melotonin, a chemical that affects sleep and mood patterns
While it is unclear what causes this type of Depression, the good news is that there are many types of treatment for it! If you have a Vitamin D deficiency you can ask your doctor for trusted brands of over-the-counter vitamins. Using a light therapy lamp can also help treat SAD by reducing the impact of possible changes in our biological clocks. These lamps mimic natural sunlight and can be very effective. Finding a way to enjoy time outdoors during the darker, colder months helps increase exposure to sunlight. Finding an outdoor Winter sport will have the added benefit of an endorphin boost!
Therapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), has also been shown to effectively treat SAD. CBT produced the longest lasting effects of all the treatments researched and teaches skills that can be used year round as needed. CBT has the potential to treat the current episode of SAD, and to help you better manage future episodes.
Utilizing one or all of these treatments for SAD can decrease the negative impact of this disorder on your life and increase your overall functioning during the Fall and Winter months. Of course, if none of these tactics work for you, relocating to a sunnier, warmer locale is an option as well!
I hope this has helped you learn more about Seasonal Affective Disorder and how it can be treated. And if you’d love to know more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or other treatment options, our team of therapists at Authentic Connections Counseling Center in Castle Rock, Colorado is here to support you. You can book a session by calling 720-370-3010 x100 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.