I’m sure you’ve noticed. There are some days when you feel an extra weight on your shoulders, for no apparent reason, a weight that makes even the most basic daily activities ten times more difficult. Or, maybe you start waking up exhausted even after 10 hours of sleep per night. Your thoughts are all over the place, you can’t focus. Not many things excite you anymore, as much as you try. You’re also more likely to be eating more, especially junk food, but not even that helps you feel any better.
All of the above, coupled with feelings of general sadness and hopelessness, are symptoms of the seasonal affective disorder or SAD, a form of depression that typically coincides with the winter months. And yes, it’s definitely a real thing, confirms Dr. Alex Korb, assistant professor at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression.
While the possible causes of this affliction are numerous and hard to track, researchers agree that a general lack of sunlight is an important factor. Dr. Teodor Postolache, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, explains that lack of light in winter may create a “dyssynchrony” in your body’s sleep-wake cycles and internal clocks, which in turn leads to imbalances in your levels of serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters that control your mood, appetite and energy levels.
But the absence of sunlight is not the only culprit. To blame are also genetic and biological factors. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of Winter Blues, a book about SAD points out the seasonal depression disorder runs in families.
And what’s most obvious, in winter, many of the activities that uplift our moods and bring us peace and joy – exercise, getting together with friends, spending time in nature – are less likely to happen because of the bad weather.
So what can you do about it? Researchers suggest light therapy, a procedure where people are exposed to a specialized light thought to help improve their mood. Other types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, are also recommended. Regular exercise and socializing, as well as spending as much time outdoors as possible – especially on sunny days – can help.
Whatever you choose to do about this form of depression, don’t take it lightly or ignore it altogether. It’s not just in your head, it’s a very real affliction, and you can get better if you just decide to reach out.