What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and How to Stay Focused

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that you can experience when the days get shorter during the winter, causing you to get less sunlight each day. This is because the amount of sunlight we are exposed to from day to day can affect our melatonin and serotonin levels. Melatonin and serotonin are brain chemicals that work together to regulate our moods, energy levels, and sleeping schedules. Any significant disruptions to these delicate brain chemical levels can cause major changes to the parts of our lives that they regulate. For example, our brains make more melatonin when it is dark, which makes sense because it regulates our sleep habits. When we have a higher level of melatonin, we can feel sleepier and less energetic than usual. On the other hand, serotonin is created when we get sunlight, and it affects our energy levels and moods. While high levels of serotonin support feelings of well-being and happiness, low levels of serotonin are associated with depression.

Symptoms of SAD can include:

Changes in sleep habits.

The average adult needs anywhere from 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night. It is common for people affected by SAD to experience hypersomnia, that is, a desire to sleep longer than usual.

Lower energy.

Wanting to sleep longer than usual can be related to low energy levels, which can make you feel tired all the time. You might even lose motivation to do the things you normally enjoy, because it might feel too difficult to muster the energy to do them.

Less enjoyment.

Another symptom of SAD that can decrease your motivation to do the things you usually enjoy is a lack of enjoyment. Why bother participating in your favorite hobby if it doesn’t bring you the pleasure it usually does?

Difficulty focusing on tasks.

SAD can make it harder for you to focus on tasks that are usually much easier to perform. This can combine with other symptoms to cause SAD to affect your daily life, including your personal relationships and work performance.

 

Although SAD can pose several challenges, there are things you can do to lessen its effects. You can work with a licensed therapist to develop a treatment plan so that SAD does not take control of your life every year like clockwork. Treatment options can include medications to relieve depression such as SSRIs, light therapy which features a daily schedule of time spent in front of a special light fixture you can purchase, and Vitamin D supplements which have been shown to help some people as much as light therapy. Spending more time outdoors during the daytime in winter months can also be tremendously helpful. And you can make behavioral choices that can help you correct some of the issues that SAD can cause, such as difficulty concentrating on your normal daily tasks and completing them successfully. 

Here are some tips to stay focused: 

  1. Make a schedule for yourself and stick to it; include time for exercise, rest, work, play, housekeeping, personal development, social contact, family interaction, and self care.

2. Set reminders on your phone and use post it notes throughout your home or office to help you remember to do certain things such as filing papers, taking medicine, or feeding your pets.

3. Ensure you are getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and eating healthy foods. These are foundational to optimal mental health, especially when you are facing the challenges posed by SAD.

4. Reward yourself for meeting goals; treat yourself “just because.” Showing compassion to yourself is vital for dealing with the setbacks that SAD can cause.

5. Prioritize your own needs and schedule, especially during winter months. Putting yourself first can be hard for people with significant family or work obligations, but remember that you can only pour from a full cup, and you must put yourself first so that you can show up fully for others. 

 

If you have realized that you experience patterns of symptoms that may indicate SAD, it might help you to reach out for support from a trained mental health professional. The above tips are helpful, certainly, but there is a wealth of support available to you in addition to online resources. Chenal Family Therapy can offer you a one-on-one relationship with a licensed counselor who can work with you directly to help you with your specific challenges related to SAD. Don’t wait for symptoms to become unbearable–contact us today to learn more.

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