By: Beth Courbier, Behavioral Health Manager at Priority Health
The colder and darker days of the winter season are challenging—you find yourself more tired than usual, you crave heavy foods, your sleeping pattern is out of whack and you feel depressed and listless. You might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a subcategory of depression related to the changes in seasons. That’s right, the “winter blues” aren’t just in your head! Also, with the ongoing stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the winter blues may feel even more blue than years past.
What is SAD?
SAD or seasonal affective disorder is depression brought on by the lack of light during the fall and winter months. SAD symptoms typically start in fall, as the days get shorter, and continue through the winter. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring and early summer. Symptoms include oversleeping, increased cravings for “comfort food,” weight gain, low energy and overall feelings of depression. We don’t know exactly what causes SAD, however the most likely cause is the amount of reduced sunlight during fall and winter (a big factor for Michiganders)—which throws off your body’s internal clock and alters levels of serotonin and melatonin (brain chemicals that affect mood) in your body. Risk factors for SAD include family history of SAD, a previous diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder and living far from the equator (like our beloved mitten state: Lansing is 2,941 miles from the equator). Studies indicate that as many as 20-40% of people living at approximately the same latitude as Michigan experience some degree of sad in the winter. You are not alone!
How you can cope.
While it’s tempting to wrap yourself in a blanket and stay inside, you can take proactive measures to lessen the symptoms of SAD and mitigate its effects. Exercise and outdoor activities can boost your mood and relieve stress. Try keeping a strict sleep schedule to make sure you’re getting plenty of rest, which prevents crashing or oversleeping. Increase your Omega-3 and Vitamin D to maintain your serotonin levels – these tend to decrease with lack of sunlight. Be bright! Take in natural sunlight or invest in a light therapy lamp. Last but not least, consider engaging in relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga to calm your mind and counter the effects of SAD.
Note: you may not be comfortable with all of these activities during COVID-19 due to social distancing recommendations.
You’re not alone.
Seasonal affective disorder is completely normal. It’s also more common in women than men. Many people start to feel a little blue during the dark cold winter months and remember, it is treatable. But don’t dismiss SAD as a seasonal funk or brush it off as a light case of the winter blues. If symptoms interfere with your everyday life; if they affect your sleep, make you depressed for days at a time or make you feel suicidal, see your doctor right away. Medical treatments for SAD may include vitamin D supplements, light therapy, outpatient “talk” therapy and medication.
If you’re a Priority Health member, there are mental health and substance use disorder professionals available to help—you don’t even have to call your primary care provider first. Just be sure to have your membership card nearby to verify your coverage. Call 616.464.8500 or 800.673.8043, Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. All calls are confidential.
Self-care and coping skills are critical to mental health and wellbeing. To empower members, Priority Health partnered with a digital health specialist to offer free access to mental wellness resources. All members have access to a FREE app called myStrength which is a mental wellness tool with activities to manage stress and bolster mental health. Members can access the tool through the member page at priorityhealth.com: https://bh.mystrength.com/priority-health.
Not a Priority Health member? Check with your health insurance provider or call 211 for statewide support in Michigan. Learn more here about the Michigan 211 crisis services available to you statewide.
Even with SAD, you can find ways to enjoy the fall and winter seasons. Know the symptoms and seek treatment so you can live happily and healthily, year-round.