I absolutely love the onset of fall, and even as winter rolls in, I can appreciate the fun of snow and the joy around the holidays. What I do not love are the months of January through March. I suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and have struggled with it every year I have spent in Indiana. I grew up thinking that everyone hates these months, and I was no different in my disdain for the grey and dreary months. However, after living in California for more than a decade, I realized that I didn’t have those same feelings while living on the sunny west coast. The sun shined bright almost every day, and even when the Californians cursed the grey “June Gloom,” it was no match to those dark Indiana months. So how do you know if you have seasonal affective disorder or you just hate winter? What can you do about it? I’ll tell you what I know as a mental health professional, a person who struggles with SAD, and a mom just trying to do my best to keep my mood in check.
The further you live from the equator, the more likely you are to suffer from seasonal affective disorder.
So living in Indiana makes us Hoosiers easy targets with our reduced sunlight, short days, and long nights. During this dark time (pun intended), some of us experience lowered serotonin and increased melatonin. Serotonin is that feel-good hormone in our brain that is linked to pleasure; low levels have been linked to depression. Melatonin is a sleep-related hormone in our brain, and increased levels have also been linked to depression. Symptoms of SAD are actually the same as depression, but the person experiences them during the fall and winter months, but the symptoms fully go away in spring and summer.
Here are the symptoms of depression. Please note you do not need all of them to be diagnosed with depression or SAD.
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities once enjoyed
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day (Note: Those experiencing seasonal affective disorder report craving and eating more starches and sweets and gaining at least 5% of body weight)
- Trouble sleeping (i.e., sleeping too much or not at all)
- Visible slowing of physical activity, such as movement and speech
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate as well as indecisiveness
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide ideation
If you experienced any, several, or all of these symptoms, it is imperative you speak with your doctor or a mental health professional.
One of the most common treatments is to take an anti-depressant during the winter months. Many other people find success in daily light therapy, which mimics sun exposure and can increase some feel-good brain hormones. For me personally, my seasonal affective disorder comes on strong in February and March, and I’ve found that if I can get some natural sunshine in for several days in a row, this does wonder for my mood! For 2023, I have booked and/or planned three trips to get out of the Indiana grey during the months that are the hardest. Not only do I get the sun, but I also get joy and time spent with friends or family, which combats my depression. These trips include a girls weekend to California in January ($240 round trip from Indiana), a quick long weekened to Florida in February (driveable or $100 round trip), and then a Phoenix trip for our family during spring break. I know three trips may seem a bit extreme, but I don’t mess around with depression. As an adult, I realize how SAD robbed me of joy every year, and I don’t want that to happen again. Honestly, I have even noticed some signs of SAD in one of my kids, so I plan to make these trips not just for me but for my child as well. (As a side note, SAD in children often looks like increased irritability, anger, or agitation rather than sadness.)
For more info on SAD, visit that national institute of mental health.