Scientists may still be debating whether there is really such a thing as "Blue Monday," or in other words, the third Monday of January, which is argued to be the most depressing day of the year, but one thing is for sure – Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is real and it does affect people this time of year.
Also known as the winter blues or winter depression, SAD causes weariness and fatigue, negatively affecting the quality of life due to social aversion and not enjoying life to the fullest. SAD can occur at any age, but typically starts between the ages of 18 and 30 and is four times more common in women than in men.
The human psychology is known to be affected easily by its environment, constantly changing in line with internal and external stimulants. Natural and artificial lighting has also been shown to have a considerable impact on humans' moods. Dropping temperatures force people to spend more time indoors and in closed spaces, and this, coupled with shorter and darker days, creates the perfect breeding ground for depression.
According to experts, seeking professional help, being active and exercising, spending time with people whose company you enjoy and not isolating yourself from your friends and family could help you beat this depression.
Psychiatric specialist Şaban Karayağız from Memorial Hospital in Kayseri gave information about this mood disorder and shared his tips and tricks to beat winter sadness.
SAD starts prowling in early winter
As the sun rays become ever so faint well into winter, some people start to be consumed by negative feelings like helplessness and sadness.
The thick and snuggly clothes we wear to be warm and the various shades of black and gray we gravitate toward to match the gloomy weather also do not help with the situation.
But how will we know if we have SAD? What symptoms should we watch out for?
According to Karayağız, the following complaints can point to depression if they last for almost the entire day and are observed continuously at least for two weeks.
1. The main symptoms observed in people affected by winter depression are malaise and fatigue, unhappiness, loss of interest and lack of pleasure.
2. Not being able to enjoy social activities and losing interest in things that once gave you joy and pleasure are telltale signs of SAD.
3. Doctors look for symptoms of lethargy, sleep irregularities, changes in appetite, attention deficiency and forgetfulness to make a diagnosis.
4. The individual starts having problems with social adaptation and becomes increasingly isolated. As a result, they grapple with indecision, feel that "life is meaningless, useless and empty," lose all joy in life, and enter a vicious cycle of negative thoughts that start taking over the brain, feeling worthless and guilty.
Hormones play an important role
The biological aspect of winter depression is one that should not be overlooked. Just like insulin regulates blood sugar, and insulin deficiency or resistance plays a role in diabetes, some hormones in the brain that balance our emotions – namely serotonin and melatonin – also play a role in initiating depression.
With the arrival of winter, the sun seems to disappear into oblivion and our daylight hours become shorter and shorter. This lack of light and seasonal change prompt a shift in our biological internal clock, or circadian rhythm, spurring a biochemical imbalance in the brain. As a result, the rate of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle, increases and the level of serotonin, the hormone that stabilizes our mood and feelings, drops. This can trigger seasonal depressive episodes in people already prone to depression.
What to do to avoid getting SAD?
• Use your breaks at work wisely; if possible, eat lunch outside in the fresh air. Try to stay away from carbs and sugar.
• On days when the weather is good, you should strive to be outside for at least 30-60 minutes and take short walks if possible.
• Get up early in the morning, go to bed early at night and make the most of the daylight.
• A regular sleep schedule and getting enough shuteye is crucial. You might be tempted to sleep more and "stock up" on sleep but avoid that method at all costs.
• If you start to feel like you can barely keep your eyelids open during the day, rest for 10-15 minutes with your eyes closed.
• Establish rules for a healthy and balanced diet, eat regular meals and do not skip them.
• Tropical fruits such as avocados, kiwis, mangoes and papayas are rich in the serotonin precursor tryptophan. Try to incorporate these into your diet every two days.
• No matter how hard it feels, try to be social and spend time with your friends.
• Put your phone away before bed and stop scrolling aimlessly through social media right before you sleep.
The first step in treatment is to change your lifestyle. In addition to such changes, medication and psychotherapy might be needed to treat the disorder. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and light therapy are among the treatment options. These treatments must be tailored to each patient.
Learning relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation, and doing breathing exercises can also be of tremendous help. Scientific studies have shown that breathing exercises help increase the amount of oxygen entering the body and relax the muscles, thus providing a sense of calmness and relaxation.
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