By Kelsey Kuehn
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”
I just learned that fall is America’s most beloved season. Pumpkin spice lattes, spooky Halloween season, cozy sweaters, the crisp air, and the beautiful changing colors… it is appealing. But there’s also a group of people who dread the cooler months. The ones who know what’s to come when the seasons change. These are the people who experience a significant decline in their mental health known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Weather may affect your mood for a variety of reasons. I, for one, feel energized and upbeat in the summer. Engaging in outdoor activities makes me feel more alive and connected to my surroundings. But others can loathe the warmer months. Irritability and anger have been found to heighten in the spring and summer, a possible explanation for increased aggressive behaviors by people during this time of year. Perhaps you have a job that requires you to be outdoors in the grueling sun and so you prefer cooler months. When it comes down to it, the way weather impacts you generally depends on personal preferences and individual factors.
There’s one factor, though, that does seem to affect people in a similar way thanks to biology. Something significant happens in the fall, especially if you’re here in the Midwest: a lack of sunlight. Not having access to sunshine actually changes the chemicals in your brain.
We all have something called a circadian clock, which is your body’s natural time-keeper, sensitive to and dependent on light. It regulates bodily processes such as sleep, hormones, body temperature, and eating and digestion. In short, if your circadian clock is disrupted, your physical and mental health may be out of whack.
Without access to natural light, your body produces less serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (neurotransmitters that help us experience a sense of reward and positivity) and more cortisol (the stress hormone). Thus, for some people, less daylight in fall and winter may result in an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Here are some symptoms to watch out for if you notice a significant dip in your mood when the seasons change:
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness
- Low motivation or diminished interest in once-pleasurable activities
- Poor concentration
- Sleep difficulties (sleeping too much or too little)
- Low energy or feeling sluggish
- Changes in appetite
- Suicidal thoughts
It’s important to note that people living in northern parts of America are more likely to be diagnosed with SAD because they’re farther away from the equator and don’t have as much sunlight (that’s us!). People who experience SAD most commonly notice these symptoms in the fall and winter. Interestingly, however, you might even experience SAD in warmer months, as too much light can also negatively impact mental health in some people.
It can oftentimes feel like a personality flaw to not enjoy certain seasons. Where’s your holiday cheer?! you might hear people say. Understanding this mental health issue is vital for having compassion and understanding for yourself or others who are suffering. It’s not so much about not having holiday spirit or a positive outlook. Your brain and body are reacting to your environment… and that’s outside of your control.
Think, too, about what happens in the fall. For legions of people, fall comes with significant transitions, such as going back to school (for yourself or your children), adjusting to new routines and schedules, losing freedom that may come with the summer months, or even increased illness with cold and flu season…not to mention election season and the holiday season, which frequently comes with familial and financial stressors. This time of year can be downright overwhelming.
If you think you might experience SAD, I encourage you to seek help from a counselor and a medical professional. In the meantime, here are some tips:
- Get sunlight. This is obvious, but it’s tricky when the sun disappears so quickly in the afternoon. When there is sunlight, open your windows and make sure you’re spending time outdoors (bundle up if it’s cold!). One of the most effective treatments for SAD is light therapy. You can purchase a sun lamp that mimics natural outdoor light, helping your circadian clock get back on track and regulate your brain and stress hormones. It’s best to use your sun lamp in the morning for about 20-30 minutes each day. Talk with your doctor about light therapy and how to properly implement this type of treatment into your life.
- Exercise. Remember how a lack of natural sunlight lowers the amounts of your helpful brain chemicals and increases your stress hormones? Getting exercise and moving your body do the opposite! They are natural and effective ways to boost your endorphins, opiate-like brain chemicals.
- Socialize. It’s normal to isolate more in the winter months. There’s less opportunity for social events, and let’s face it, it can be difficult to leave the house when it’s cold and dreary outside. But isolation can make depression symptoms worse. Make efforts to plan interactions with people you enjoy despite these obstacles.
- Plan a trip. While this may seem like too simple of a solution, having a trip planned in colder months may increase your sense of hope. It can be helpful to shift focus away from your mundane routine and give yourself a break from work, an opportunity to relax, and increase your access to sunlight if you head south.
- Remember it’s temporary. It can be such a relief to realize that you will not feel this way forever and your symptoms will lighten when the seasons change again.
- Schedule appointments with your providers. Some people find that taking antidepressant medications or even vitamin D supplements during these months is most effective for them. Talk with your physician to see if medication or supplements would be safe and effective for you. Counseling can also be helpful for coming up with strategies that best work for you in the colder and darker months.
If you’re noticing feelings of dread as we approach the fall season; feel annoyance or envy at the buzz and excitement that others have when talking about the seasons changing; or if you experience the symptoms listed above when the seasons change, we’d love to hear from you. You don’t have to go through this season of your life alone.