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Seasonal Changes and How They Impact Mental Health: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

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If you’ve ever woken up on a dark, rainy day in the fall or winter and instantly felt like pulling the covers back over your head, you’re not alone. Seasonal changes can have a significant impact on your mood and mental health.

Many people find themselves experiencing sadness, fatigue, and other symptoms during the colder, darker months. A few people have the opposite problem, experiencing symptoms of depression and difficulty sleeping during the summer months, though this is much less common.

As we transition from the long, sunny days of summer into the short, frigid days of winter, it’s essential to understand the impact seasonal changes can have on mental health. Let’s take a closer look at how these changes may affect you—and what you can do for relief until spring arrives.

The Science Behind Seasonal Changes and Mental Health

There’s a scientific reason that so many people find that seasonal changes affect their mood, year after year. The reason is that daylight and sunlight significantly impact our bodies’ natural rhythms and processes.

As the days get shorter, our circadian rhythms can be affected, changing the body’s sleeping and waking cycles. When there are fewer hours of sunlight during the day, the body and brain can struggle to adjust, leading to sleep issues.

A lack of daylight can also affect a range of other natural processes, including the production of melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D. This can significantly impact mood and energy levels. Sunlight can also trigger endorphins and help regulate stress, meaning these functions are more limited during darker months. 

The Basics of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of seasonal depression that most commonly affects people during the fall and winter months. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those that apply to depression and may include:

  • Feeling constantly sad and listless
  • Reduced desire to engage in favorite activities
  • Low energy or sluggishness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide

People who experience SAD during the winter also often find that they oversleep and develop appetite changes and weight gain. SAD symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Other Seasonal Factors that Affect Mental Health

Aside from biological changes, other factors can affect mood and mental health in certain months. In the Northern Hemisphere, for instance, many major holidays fall in winter, creating stress for many people.

People also tend to spend less time outside during the colder months, which can impact mood. Those who live farther from the equator are more likely to struggle with seasonal mood changes, as the amount of sunlight varies so much from season to season.

Coping Strategies for Seasonal Mental Health Challenges

The good news about SAD and other seasonal mental health challenges is that there are lots of strategies that you can use to feel better during the months that affect you.

For SAD, one of the most common treatment options is light therapy. Special lights that mimic natural light and help your body regulate hormones and rhythms are available. Light therapy is often used in combination with lifestyle adjustments to help people manage symptoms.

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule can be difficult, but it is essential for managing seasonal mental health changes. Getting enough exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and drinking enough water are important for physical and psychological health.

Many people benefit from adding mindfulness practices to their lives. Yoga and other forms of mindful movement are great ways for people with seasonal depression to help regulate their mood. Meditation and breathing exercises can also be highly beneficial.

Getting enough social interaction is a challenge for people who are experiencing SAD symptoms, but it’s an essential component of managing your mental health. Spending time with friends and family, and perhaps joining a support group, can make a big positive difference.

Getting Help from a Professional

Sometimes, lifestyle adjustments aren’t enough to provide relief from seasonal mental health challenges. If you struggle during certain months of the year, getting help from a skilled mental health professional can make a huge difference in your long-term well-being.

Depending on your symptoms, history, and other factors, you might need talk therapy, medication, or both. Getting help as soon as possible will enable you to manage your symptoms before they seriously impact your personal and professional life.

Preparing for Future Seasonal Changes

If you know that your mental health suffers when the seasons change, then it’s a good idea to start tracking your mood and understand which activities impact sleep and your overall mood. Collecting data is vital for understanding health. You can use that information to set your mental health goals and plan for the future. You can use a mental health app or keep a journal.

Once you know how different aspects of seasonal change affect you, then you can plan for the future. Maybe you need to change your diet or set a new bedtime. Or perhaps you need to schedule more time with friends in the winter months. Everyone is different, but the most important thing is to know yourself and tailor your approach based on your own needs.

Building healthy habits that you can maintain all year is the best prevention strategy for seasonal mental health changes. It won’t necessarily prevent all your symptoms, but focusing on your health and anticipating the challenges of the changing seasons is the best way to set yourself up for success.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the Author: Sarah Daren has been a startup consultant in multiple industries, including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life, including her position as a yoga instructor and raising her two children.

Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/red-fruit-handing-on-tree-branch-selective-color-photography-64705/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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