For many of us, changes in the season can also mean changes in our mood. It’s easy to merely attribute these “winter blues” to colder temperatures, shorter days and cabin fever. Doesn’t everyone hate being stuck inside in subzero weather? But what if the changes you are feeling are more than just a distaste for the cold?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) impacts over 10 million people each year; equivalent to almost 6% of the population. These individuals experience a mood shift that repeatedly correlates to seasonal patterns. These shifts, or symptoms, can include any or all of the following:
· Feelings of Hopelessness
· Low, Diminished Energy
· Loss of Interest in Activities
· Hypersomnia or a tendency to oversleep
· Changes in appetite – especially a craving for more starchy, sweet foods
· Weight Gain
· Difficulty Concentrating
· Avoidance of Social Situations
People who are also at greater risk are females, ages 18-30, who have family members that have been diagnosed with depression.
Why Is This Happening?
There are a number of possible factors that contribute to SAD. What we do know is that there are physiological shifts that occur as a direct result of seasonal changes. For instance, melatonin, which is a hormone that promotes sleep, tends to be secreted at greater levels during darkness. As winter days get shorter, melatonin production in the body increases, altering our sleep and energy levels. In addition, with minimal sunlight, our bodies can produce less Vitamin D, directly impacting the Serotonin activity in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire.
What Can Be Done to Help Treat It?
There are some subtle changes that can be made to your day to help prevent the occurrence of these aforementioned symptoms. It is important to monitor your mood and energy level throughout the day. Make sure to get outside to soak up any available sunlight, engage in physical activity as much as possible and keep a journal of all nutritional intake. This keeps you accountable for your actions and more proactive in making changes
The most effective treatment however, is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a psychotherapeutic approach to treating seasonal affective disorder. CBT focuses on the belief that our thoughts and our feelings ultimately dictate our behavior. Through treatment, we learn to understand that although we cannot control the world around us what we do have control over is how we interpret and handle those situations.
Like any form of depression, seasonal affective disorder distorts the lens through which we see the world. Our mood changes, our energy levels deteriorate, we begin to acquire more maladaptive way of thinking, we have a lowered sense of self-worth, diminished belief in our abilities, and ultimately a more negative perspective on the future. With time, those thoughts become automatic responses. Our mind absorbs them and spontaneously reacts to new experiences by labeling them with that distorted perspective; and because it’s our mind that has told us these distorted perceptions, we believe them to be true. Thais cycle of thinking is what perpetuates the experience of depression.
CBT helps us to manage that cycle of thinking by providing real practical skill but not only identifying the distortions, but also in challenging the validity behind them. That’s the beauty of our mind; that neuroplasticity provides us an opportunity to completely alter its structure; where we can replace a lifetime of negative thoughts with more positive, productive, and rational ways of thinking. As we gain control of these perceptions, we ultimately can alter our behavior. Through CBT we break the cycle of negative thinking. We gain self-awareness, insight, and a broader more rational perspective of the world around us. Through CBT, we gain control of our lives.