Anxiety in Winter: Is It Just Seasonal?

Most people who live in or have been in a snowy region during the winter months can relate to “winter blues”.As the days shorten and the weather turns nastier, we tend to spend less time outdoors and more time indoors with a hot drink and a roaring fire. You may have noticed your mood darkening as the nights lengthen and turn gloomier.

Some people end up experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during these months. SAD is a form of depression that flits in and out during certain seasons, typically during the winter months. Being sad and having seasonal affective disorder or depression is not the same thing, with SAD being a serious condition that requires professional intervention before you take that long, lonely walk out into the snow.

At Golden Gate Recovery in Marin County, California, our men’s only rehab facility helps individuals suffering from co-occurring disorders including depression and addiction and anxiety and addiction.

December is Seasonal Affective Awareness Month

December is hailed as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Awareness Month. This period is set to highlight a form of depression associated with the changing seasons, especially during the late fall and early winter months. The symptoms that characterize this condition typically begin as the days get shorter and there is less exposure to sunlight.

SAD affects approximately 10 million Americans each year, and many of its symptoms mimic those of clinical depression.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

anxiety in winter

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that normally occurs at a specific time of the year, typically in the fall or winter when daylight hours are shorter. The exact cause of SAD is not completely understood. Still, it is believed to be related to the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock and lead to changes in hormones that regulate mood.

Why Does Seasonal Depression Increase In The Winter?

Autumn, leading into winter, is when Seasonal depression, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), tends to increase. The possible reasons behind this are:

  • Reduced sunlight. Winter months mean shorter days and longer nights, resulting in less exposure to sunlight. This can disrupt the body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm, and this disruption can lead to feelings of depression.
  • Serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects your mood, and sunlight is integral in its regulation. If you consistently receive less exposure to sunlight, your serotonin levels can plummet, triggering depression.
  • Melatonin levels. Seasonal changes can disrupt your melatonin balance, and this will affect your overall mood and sleep patterns.
  • Physical activity. Physical activity has been proven to help with mood regulation. Cold weather and short days often reduce opportunities for physical activity.
  • Social interaction. People tend to remain indoors more often during winter, leading to increased sensations of isolation and decreased social interaction, which can contribute to feelings of sadness and depression.

Bear in mind that while the “winter blues” are common, SAD is a recognized form of clinical depression and should be treated by a healthcare professional.

What Are The Factors That Contribute To Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Though the exact cause of SAD is unknown, several factors are recognized as catalysts for its development. Understanding these factors makes coping with and managing the condition easier. Some of the contributing factors are:
  • Family history. People with SAD possibly have a higher likelihood of having blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
  • Major depression or bipolar disorder. People who are already diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression might experience worsening symptoms seasonally.
  • Geographical location. Surprisingly (not really, though), SAD is more common in people who live far north or far south of the equator. Winter lasts for approximately 6 months in some of these regions, and combined with severe weather conditions and isolation, it is a perfect place for SAD to develop.
  • Gender. Women are systemically more at risk of a SAD diagnosis than men.
  • Age. Younger people are more likely to develop SAD, and the older you get, the more this risk decreases.
The above factors can interact in complex ways, and not everyone with these risk factors will develop SAD.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Almost everyone has exhibited one or more of the signs and symptoms of SAD or clinical depression at some point in their life, without it being full-blown SAD. These symptoms can vary from person to person but generally include the following:

  • Feelings of depression most of the day, nearly every day during the season.
  • Decreased interest in and pleasure derived from activities you once enjoyed.
  • Fatigue and lethargy.
  • Sleep irregularities, such as oversleeping or insomnia.
  • Shifts in appetite or weight, often with carb cravings and weight gain in winter SAD, or weight loss in summer SAD.
  • Struggles with concentrating and making decisions.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.
  • Social withdrawal, preferring to stay indoors, and avoiding human interaction.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.

These symptoms cause significant distress and play havoc with daily functioning.

How Are Seasonal Affective Disorder And Depression Similar?

SAD and depression share a few similarities, as SAD is a type of depression. Below are some similarities between the two.

  • Mood aberrations. Both SAD and depression include observable mood shifts, such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness.
  • Loss of interest. People with either condition no longer have an interest in activities they once loved.
  • Energy levels. Both conditions result in reduced energy levels and fatigue throughout the day.
  • Appetite changes. Changes in appetite and eating patterns, whether eating less or more, are common in both SAD and depression.
  • Physical symptoms. Physical ailments such as headaches and stomachaches can occur in both SAD and clinical depression.

While these symptoms are often present in both SAD and depression, the specific timing and patterns of symptoms can help differentiate between the two.

How Are Seasonal Affective Disorder And Depression Different?

seasonal affective disorder

Just as there are commonalities between SAD and clinical depression, there are also significant differences that help set them apart.

  • Seasonality. SAD is directly linked to seasonal changes, normally beginning in late fall or early winter and improving during the spring and summer months. On the other hand, depression has no curfew and can occur at any time of the year.
  • Symptoms. Though both SAD and depression can include symptoms like depressed mood, decreased interest in activities, and changes in appetite and sleep, SAD is normally associated with specific patterns such as overeating, carb cravings, and oversleeping during the winter month (basically being a human bear). Depression, conversely, may manifest with weight loss and insomnia.
  • Light exposure. It is hypothesized that the reduced level of light in winter triggers SAD by affecting your brain’s serotonin levels and disrupting your circadian rhythm. This effect is negligible in non-seasonal depression.
  • Geographical factors. The rates of SAD increase the further away from the equator you travel in either direction due to the significant variations in daylight hours between seasons. This geographical link is not a factor with clinical depression.

Both SAD and clinical depression are serious conditions and can significantly impact a person’s life.

What Are Some Effective Treatments For Seasonal Affective Disorder And Addiction?

Effective treatments for SAD typically involve a combination of therapies tailored to a person’s specific needs. Some of the most commonly recommended treatments are:

  • Light Therapy. This involves exposure to bright light to simulate sunlight.
  • Medications: Antidepressants (e.g. Bupropion and Paroxetine) may be prescribed.
  • Psychotherapy: Talking to a mental health professional in varying settings.
  • Vitamin D Supplementation: These supplements may be prescribed by a medical professional.
  • Self-Care: Taking care of your physical and mental self by keeping your living environment well-lit, sitting closer to bright windows, taking daily walks outside, exercising regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, and practicing relaxation techniques like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.

For people dealing with both SAD and addiction, it’s important to address both conditions simultaneously, and this may call for a dual diagnosis. Substance use disorders (SUD) can exacerbate symptoms of SAD and vice versa, and a comprehensive treatment plan that incorporates support for addiction recovery is necessary. This may involve behavioral therapies, support groups, and medical treatment for addiction alongside the treatments for SAD.

Golden Gate Recovery Can Help You Heal

Recovering from substance abuse or alcohol is never an easy road, and it can be further complicated when SAD is introduced. The holidays and new year are particularly trying when dealing with family and reflecting on one’s accomplishments are added to the mix.
Golden Gate Recovery is a treatment facility well-versed in handling mood disorders, SUD, alcohol use disorder, and other behavioral aberrations with compassion and a professional level of care. Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you regain control of your life and overcome seasonal depression or any other mental health issues you may be suffering from.

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