SAD Times: The Weather Is Changing, and My Mood Is, Too

Person in rain seen through blurred windowImagine yourself sitting on a white, sandy beach. The sun is shining; you feel the warmth on your skin. There’s a slight breeze blowing off the nearby water, which keeps you from feeling too hot. You sip on your favorite icy drink. You hear the sound of the waves rolling against the beach and then sliding away again. Laughter can be heard in the distance as children splash and play. You see brightly colored kites zipping through the clear, blue sky. People wave and smile as they walk by. The days feel long as daylight lingers into the evening hours.

How do you feel when you imagine this scenario?

Next, imagine yourself walking through a park. The sky is gray and cloudy. The wind blows little sprinkles of rain in your face. It has been at least two weeks since the sun was out, and the days are short. It’s dark when you wake up the morning and dark by the time you sit down to eat dinner. You step in mud puddles that can’t be avoided; your toes feel wet and cold. No one makes eye contact with you because everyone is rushing to get where they’re going before the next storm moves in and the rain returns. You cling to the warm beverage you’re holding, which keeps your hands from freezing. The wind has blown all the leaves from the trees and most of the bushes, it is as though all the color has been drained away. You hear people mutter under their breath as they pass and see them leap hastily into their vehicles in hopes of escaping the chill.

How does this scenario make you feel?

Did you notice any difference between the two or prefer one over the other?

Researchers suggest there is a link between the weather and mood. The weather can be related to a seasonal pattern of depression, sometimes referred to as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Although SAD is most common during the winter months and tends to diminish in the spring, SAD occurs in some people during summer months. Researchers suggest summer SAD is rare, occurring in less than 1% of the U.S. population.

Depression with a seasonal pattern can be recognized by a regular occurrence of a major depressive episode that begins and ends around the same time every year. SAD is different than the so-called “winter blues,” which an estimated 10% to 20% of people experience. The seasonal pattern for SAD must be present for at least two years, and a person cannot have had a non-seasonal depressive episode during that time.

Signs to be aware of with SAD include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Oversleeping
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased cravings for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Increased weight gain
  • Decreased energy
  • Decreased interest in activities previously enjoyed

There are many thoughts about the causes of SAD, but no definitive source has been identified. SAD has been associated with each of the following:

  • Circadian rhythm (the body’s internal, biological clock)
  • Serotonin levels (a brain chemical which may be affected by levels of sunlight)
  • Genetics
  • Geographic location
  • Melatonin levels (a body chemical related to mood and sleep patterns)

If you wonder whether SAD may be affecting you, it can help to know there are treatments available to help manage it. Such treatments include the following:

Light Therapy

Sometimes called phototherapy, this method involves daily exposure to high-intensity light through the use of a light therapy box. There are a variety of light therapy boxes available. It is recommended that you speak with your physician to determine which options would be most appropriate for you.

Medication

If symptoms are severe enough and the depressed mood is interfering in daily activities, medication such as antidepressants may be worth exploring.

Counseling

Talk therapy can help identify negative thinking associated with depressed mood and help you learn healthy ways to cope and change negative self-talk. If your physician prescribes medication, combining it with counseling can be an effective treatment option.

Supplements

Some people opt for herbal remedies, such as melatonin or St. John’s wort, to manage symptoms. Be sure to discuss these options with your physician since there is potential for supplements to interfere with prescribed medications.

Yoga or Massage Therapy

These can be additional options that engage your body, mind, and senses.

If you have experienced SAD, what techniques do/did you use to manage it? If you expect that SAD will return at the same time each year, have you found methods that are helpful for preventing it?

Reference:

Flaskerud, J. H. (2012). Seasonal Affective Disorders. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 33: 266-268.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC, CTTS, therapist in Vancouver, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • Nick

    Nick

    December 22nd, 2015 at 6:20 AM

    No wonder people feel depressed given the winter and lack of sun. Vitamin D is also important. Thanks for the article!

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    December 22nd, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    Thank you Nick! You’re right, Vitamin D can also be used as a helpful supplement to enhance mood.

  • Erin

    Erin

    December 22nd, 2015 at 2:32 PM

    There is a very real tendency for any of us to fall into the trap of SAD. I know that there are some who are more predisposed to it, but I am telling you, all this darkness even before I get home from work plus the cold weather… that can all combine to really put me in a funk for sure.

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    December 22nd, 2015 at 4:11 PM

    Hi Erin, thanks for sharing your comment! “Funk” is a great description, it really captures the feeling of a low mood. I hope you have some methods to deal with it, or that you are able to take some tips from the article to work with it, when you feel it coming on!

  • Zena

    Zena

    December 23rd, 2015 at 5:20 AM

    I have something that I just thought about-
    do people who live in areas where there is very little weather and seasonal differential have this too? I am thinking of like out west in the desert or maybe even a place like Florida where the temps and weather are pretty much the same year round. I think that it would be pretty interesting to know that, and if so if people who do experience this on a yearly basis would ever consider moving somewhere where the differences were not quite so marked.

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    December 23rd, 2015 at 10:09 AM

    Great question Zena! Your question gets into the idea of geographical location. Seasonal depression is thought to be related more to the amount of daylight, not the temperature. So say even though Florida has a very moderate temperature year-round, if there are places there that get less sunlight, you might be at a higher risk of becoming seasonally depressed in those areas. Interestingly, some researchers have studied places in Norway where the sun doesn’t rise at all from November to January and they found very low rates of seasonal depression! At least one researcher said the low rate was related to what he called a “cultural mindset” or a “wintertime mindset.” Some people do move to sunnier places when that’s possible. For others, the expense and stress of moving might outweigh a seasonal mood problem and prevent them from going elsewhere. For others, they move temporarily during the darker winter months and stay at second homes in sunnier locations. They are sometimes called “snowbirds” who migrate with the seasons.

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    December 23rd, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    soooo tired of winter already
    I am usually a pretty happy person but man, this lack of sun is a real killer

  • Sammi

    Sammi

    December 24th, 2015 at 7:18 PM

    I am afraid of taking medications for this. Do you really believe that I could get just as much out of going to counseling as people say that I could from antidepressants?

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    December 24th, 2015 at 11:21 PM

    Thanks for your comments Virginia and Sammi. Many people are afraid of or refuse to take medications. Counseling can provide ideas for how to cope with depression and sometimes, if symptoms are severe enough that they interfere in your day-to-day activities, medications can be helpful. Anti-depressants are most useful when combined with counseling and not just used on their own. Talking with both a counselor and your doctor can help you decide what will be best for you.

  • lorna

    lorna

    December 25th, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    thought that this was something that was just made up, not a real thing

    my apologies to those who have suffered with this and I didn’t understand

  • Amy

    Amy

    December 26th, 2015 at 1:57 PM

    I started taking a VItamin D supplement last year at the encouragement of my physician. I can really tell a big difference in a few months with how I am feeling. I go outside all the time but somehow I still have a D deficiency so I started that little tiny supplement and have felt so much better. I think that this may could help people with SAD too.

  • Maria

    Maria

    December 26th, 2015 at 8:23 PM

    lots of excercise has been shown to help as much as an antidepressant. Also 5htp has been shown to decrease carb cravings.

  • Rhea

    Rhea

    December 27th, 2015 at 8:36 AM

    How about the people who live up near the Arctic where the seasons can be wonky, well, not really the weather but the daylight inconsistencies that they experience at different times of the year?

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    December 28th, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Thanks for your comments lorna, Amy, Maria, and Rhea! lorna, I’m glad the article helped you understand SAD in a new way! Amy, Vitamin D does seem to make a difference for a lot of people, I’m glad to hear you have noticed positive changes after taking it! Maria, yes, exercise can be HUGE factor in overcoming SAD and other forms of depressed mood. I’m not familiar with 5htp, thank you for letting us know about it! Rhea, I think your question about people living near the Arctic relates well with the topic of geographical location that I commented on above! It seems there may be some cultural factors that play into some regions where daylight hours are less consistent.

  • Amy

    Amy

    December 30th, 2015 at 12:33 PM

    I’m just glad that I got tested for that and it showed that I was way deficient. Who knew?

  • Pamela

    Pamela

    January 12th, 2016 at 8:21 AM

    Herbal remedies should be provided by someone trained in the use of herbs, there are very few doctors who fit this bill. St. John’s Wort, for example, may help someone with feelings of SAD but there are so many more options that may be more appropriate to the person in question for a variety of reasons. It is really unfortunate that this herb in particular has been associated with depression, as it is beneficial for many more problems and acts like a band-aid for depression in many, many cases. I’m glad that someone mentioned Vitamin D testing, as it has a huge impact on mood (as does magnesium).
    Eating right is another factor that is not often mentioned, as is getting outside during daylight hours for 20 minutes a day. Getting outside this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is not enough to spark Vitamin D production, but it is a huge mood elevator. Better to be outside on a cloudy day than stuck in a cubicle under fluorescent lights.
    Movement is so key – if we move, our thoughts and feelings have a chance to break their typical patterns and we feel better: endorphins!
    Medication, for me, was what helped me get to a good enough place to no longer need it and manage with self-care instead. Longtime sufferer of SAD talking – was Dx’d 7 years ago, suffered with it for four years before finally being diagnosed.

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