Seasonal Depression: How to Spot It and How to Beat It

If you find yourself feeling down each year beginning in the fall, you might have seasonal depression. For older adults, safety concerns can cause isolation during the winter affecting their mental health. Seniors choose to stay home to reduce the risk of falling on icy sidewalks or developing hypothermia in cold weather.

While it’s not unusual to feel gloomy as the weather gets cold and the days grow short, if you feel depressed for more than a week or so, you need to take charge of your health. Read on to learn about seasonal depression; how to spot it and how to beat it.

What is seasonal depression?

Often called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), seasonal depression generally starts in the fall, as the days grow cold and short. It gets worse during the winter, then the symptoms generally resolve in the spring.

During the winter months, some people develop the “winter blues,” a mild form of SAD. But actual SAD is more serious, it is a form of depression that can affect your daily life and well-being.

Do you have seasonal depression?

The smptoms of SAD generally start mild, but become more severe over the winter. They include signs of depression such as:

  • Feeling sad, down or listless most of the time
  • Losing interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Feeling sluggish and having low energy
  • Sleeping too much
  • Overeating, weight gain and carbohydrate cravings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Entertaining thoughts of suicide or death

Can SAD strike in the summer?

Although rare, there is a type of SAD called “summer depression.” It begins in late spring and ends in the fall.

What causes SAD?

The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is unknown. Researchers have several theories on what triggers the condition:

  • Reduced serotonin levels. Shorter days and limited sunlight can lead to a drop in serotonin, a feel-good hormone stimulated by sunlight.
  • Changing biological clock. Your internal clock that regulates mood, sleep and hormones shifts when it is exposed to less sunlight. This change may make it difficult to regulate your moods.
  • Inadequate vitamin D. Sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D, which aids in serotonin production. During the winter, minimal exposure to sunshine can result in a vitamin D deficiency. This affects serotonin and mood.
  • Excess melatonin. Your body produces the hormone melatonin in response to darkness. It helps your body clock and with sleep. Short winter days cause some people to produce excess melatonin making them feel sleepy and sluggish.

Lifting your spirits

Not all wintertime doldrums are full-on SAD. If you simply have the winter blues, here are a few tips to help older adults beat the blues.

  • Get creative. Learn a new skill and exercise your brain at the same time. Try your hand at knitting, cake decorating or painting.
  • Learn to meditate. In our busy society, sitting quietly and quieting your mind can be a challenge. Yet meditation has numerous benefits from reducing chronic pain to lifting your spirits.
  • Schedule workouts. Lift your spirits by exercising for 30 minutes a day, three times a week.
  • Turn off the TV. If the constant barrage of bad news is stressing you out, take a break from the TV. That includes news apps and social media.
  • FaceTime the grandkids. If you haven’t mastered Zoom, FaceTime or other ways to videoconference, have someone help you get started. Connecting with your children and grandchildren lets you spend quality time with loved ones even when you’re far apart.

Treatments for seasonal depression

If you suspect your symptoms are not just the winter blues, but full seasonal depression, see your doctor for a diagnosis. They will discuss available treatment options.

  • Bring in the light, Phototherapy, or exposure to bright light, helps increase serotonin levels. Light therapy involves being in a room with an ultra bright light for 15 to 30 minutes each day. For best results, use light therapy in the morning.
  • Take vitamin D. Make sure you’re not low on vitamin D or taking supplements. If you’re interested in dietary sources of vitamin D, eat fatty fish such as trout, salmon and tuna. Other sources of Vitamin D are beef liver, egg yolks, cheese and milk.
  • Try talk therapy. SAD can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). According to research, this type of therapy produces the most long-term benefits of any treatment approach.
  • Use antidepressants. Your physician may recommend medication if you have severe symptoms or other treatments are unsuccessful. Medication is often combined with light therapy.

How to beat seasonal depression

Shorter days and cooler winter weather can trigger the winter blues or full seasonal depression. The good news is these conditions are treatable. There is no need to spend the winter under a blanket on the couch. For mild symptoms, exercise, connect with others and explore your creativity. See your doctor if you’re depressed and follow your plan of care. There’s no need to wait until spring to feel like yourself again.

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