Winter in the Roaring Fork Valley brings with it a lot of great things – snow, lapping your favorite runs, winter river walks, and plenty of other ways to get out and about. However, the shorter days and lack of sunlight can result in the often under-discussed seasonal affective disorder, or otherwise known as S.A.D.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, most commonly spanning late fall to late winter, however, some suffer from S.A.D. in the spring and summer as well. If your winter blues start to feel more serious, it’s worth talking to your AVH primary care physician about whether or not you might be suffering from S.A.D.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
As the seasons change, watch for these common S.A.D. symptoms:
- An oppressive feeling of depression
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Avoiding people or activities (withdrawal, isolation)
- Losing interest in activities
- Trouble sleeping and/or low energy levels
- Loss of appetite or change in appetite and cravings, particularly, craving more starchy or sugary foods
- Feeling agitated
- Feeling tired to the point of being unable to complete daily tasks
In severe cases, S.A.D. can lead to deep depression and suicidal thoughts and tendencies. If you are experiencing these symptoms, contact Aspen Strong, Mind Springs Health, or Aspen Hope Center, for suicide prevention services and mental health support.
It’s not entirely known what causes seasonal affective disorder, but the medical community tends to agree the following play a part:
- Changes in circadian rhythm, or your body’s natural biological clock. This is most prominent in winter months when we’re exposed to less sunlight.
- A drop in serotonin levels, also triggered by reduced sunlight. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects mood and less of it might contribute to the onset of S.A.D.
- Disrupted melatonin levels due to seasonal shifts might also play a part. Melatonin is an important factor in how much sleep you get (and your quality of sleep) and your mood.
How to Prevent S.A.D. and Tips to Help You Cope
Once you have identified S.A.D., or even a milder case of the “winter blues,” there are steps you can take to help prevent and cope with the disorder.
- Regular exercise is key in preventing seasonal affective disorder. Getting outdoors is best, but if the weather doesn’t allow for that, getting your heart rate up indoors is a great option, too.
- Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible, even if it’s in small doses. Again, a short walk outside to make the most of those natural rays is great, but also keeping the blinds in your house open will increase natural sunlight exposure.
- Lean on friends, family and other support systems to help reduce the feeling of isolation. In the time of COVID, this is safest outdoors, but a regular Zoom meetup, online exercise class or telemedicine appointments are other great ways to stay connected.
- Eat well. It’s the world’s easiest natural remedy, and it works for S.A.D., too. A healthy diet full of vitamins and minerals is a great way to combat seasonal depression.
- When the days are just too short or too gloomy to see any sort of sun, consider light therapy or phototherapy – exposure to bright light, dawn simulator or a light box that mimics natural outdoor light.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychological treatment that aims to change thinking patterns, and has been shown to be helpful in cases of S.A.D.
While feeling down as seasons change can seem overwhelming, seasonal affective disorder is not uncommon, especially in colder climates, such as the Roaring Fork Valley, that experiences less sunlight during certain times of year. If you feel you might be suffering from seasonal depression, don’t be afraid to reach out to your healthcare provider to express your mental health conditions. You’re certainly not alone as many people struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder and may also be experiencing heightened stress and anxiety during COVID-19. Pandemic fatigue is real, but there are strong support options out there.