With the arrival of the cold seasons, the hours of daylight are shortened and some people respond to these changes with noticeable alterations in their mood. It is a type of depression that runs in a seasonal pattern. It is about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter blues.
A gray day, a tree that begins to undress when shedding its first leaves, and a flower that is already showing its head down. Our spirits seem to suffer simply when we observe how nature shows the symptoms of the arrival of winter.
But it is not just a melancholic feeling: less exposure to light causes changes in our body that, in some cases, can significantly alter the mood and cause a specific type of depression. It is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and can be very disabling.
SYMPTOMS OF SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
People with this disorder alternate recurrent episodes of major depression during a certain time of the year – especially in autumn and winter – with episodes of remission (usually in spring or summer). It is understood that SAD is suffered when there is a recurring pattern, that is, if it repeats for at least two years. Remembering when we have been able to feel discouraged can be helpful to know if we are prone to this alteration.
In addition to the mood disorders typical of depression (such as sadness, irritability, anxiety, anhedonia, asthenia), other symptoms appear in SAD:
- Appetite disorders. There is an increased appetite and craving for carbohydrates (sometimes associated with binge eating).
- Tiredness. In those affected by SAD there is an increased secretion of the sleep hormone (melatonin), which can lead to increased drowsiness and fatigue.
- Social isolation. There is a reluctance to social contact and hypersensitivity to rejection that causes progressive social isolation. It is as if people make them uncomfortable or annoyed.
SAD can dramatically affect our quality of life. Therefore, when we suffer from it, it is advisable to adopt certain habits that can help us reduce its impact.
Use lights that mimic nature
Several hypotheses are being considered about the mechanisms that influence the genesis of SAD, but the most studied is that related to the circadian rhythm. And it is that the internal clock that governs it is guided by sunlight and may be slightly altered when winter arrives, since the body spends fewer hours receiving sunlight. Thus, it seems that the key to this disorder could be the lack of light that the body receives.
Various variables related to this aspect seem to influence the origin of the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder: genetic (such as retinal sensitivity, which can make light processing difficult), environmental (such as latitude, pollution and climate in the place where you reside) and even aspects such as the scarcity of light that is received in places with variegated buildings or very close together.
- More light indoors. Increasing the indoor lighting in your workplace and home has been shown to help combat the symptoms of such a lack of light. Studies suggest that, to this end, we should place full-spectrum light bulbs (light that resembles that of the sun) in our lamps during the winter months.
Exercising can help against SAD
People with Seasonal Affective Disorder have trouble regulating one of the key neurotransmitters involved in mood, serotonin, according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark). Therefore, doing some exercise – which helps increase serotonin levels in the body naturally – can improve mild symptoms of this disorder.
- Better outdoors. To multiply the positive effect of exercise, it is advisable to choose sports that can be practiced outdoors –during the hours of sunlight– in order to increase the daily time of exposure to natural light.
Spending more time away from home
Go for a walk, meet some friends, read in a park, sit and observe nature. It is a time when natural light is received and during which a positive attitude towards life can be cultivated.
- Activities in company. One of the consequences of the “winter blues” is a reluctance to social contact and hypersensitivity to rejection. All this affects family and social life. Trying to spend a little time with loved ones prevents social isolation and improves your mood if you suffer from this type of disorder. It is convenient to share with our close surroundings how the change of season affects us. This way they will be able to better understand the situation and we will avoid conflicts.
- A few days of vacation. Saving some vacation days to go somewhere sunny in winter is a great option to combat the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Once the specialist has diagnosed that we do indeed suffer from this alteration, we should not underestimate – whenever possible – the option of organizing an annual getaway in advance to be able to recharge our batteries at some point during the dark seasons.
Eating well improves symptoms
Studies have indicated that consuming a balanced diet, reducing caffeine consumption, helps combat the symptoms caused by the winter blues. In addition, adding certain foods to our menus during the fall and winter can help boost your mood:
- Foods rich in vitamin D. Vitamin D –which our body synthesizes from sunlight– plays a role in the activity of serotonin. It has been shown that people with SAD can also produce less vitamin D, which affects the levels of this hormone essential for good mood. Incorporating mushrooms into the diet – one of the few foods rich in this vitamin that does not come from animals – can help to combat its deficit.
- Ingredients with omega-3. Essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3s, help maintain optimal and stable levels of serotonin. Vegetarians can obtain this fatty acid from the transformation in the body of alpha-linolenic acid, which is present in avocado, flax seeds, chia, hemp and walnuts.
Understand and understand what happens to us
Remembering that the APR is a phase that ends up passing, as it has happened on previous occasions, and understanding and accepting that it is a more or less temporary state adds a halo of hope that helps to cope with the situation.
- Prevent the problem. Understanding this also allows us to organize tasks based on the season of the year we are in to prevent the problem. As far as possible, we can arrange and structure our activities based on the phase in which we find ourselves. For example, we can leave the tasks that require less intensity and effort for the depressive phase.
IT IS A GOOD IDEA TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Trying to ignore the symptoms, minimize them, or wait for them to pass on their own helps little. It is a health disorder that, in many cases, requires professional help. Sometimes, the specialist can even prescribe a treatment. The choice of one or the other (or their combination) is suggested based on concomitant factors, and the availability and / or preference of the patient:
- Psychotherapy. Psychological therapy makes it possible to identify the most vulnerable areas. It helps to learn to anticipate and detect symptoms in order to prepare action plans and intervene to alleviate their severity. It offers possibilities of adjustment to achievable objectives.
- Light stimulation. Light therapy consists of daily light exposure for about 30 minutes with a specific machine. This treatment is at least as effective (especially if administered in the morning) as the drugs that exist to treat this disorder. Light stimulation, which is administered progressively, produces a significant decrease in depressive symptoms and the effects are usually observed after three weeks of treatment.