It’s about that time of year again – time for longer pants, heavier coats, and that anticipation you get when you’re about to have your very fist pumpkin spice latte of the season!
It’s almost Fall!
It’s a season that brings joy to many with its changing colors, and cooler days– but for some – the start of Fall is the start of a type of a depression triggered by the changing of seasons.
Seasonal Affective Disorder: What is it?
Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects around 5% of the US population, and most commonly starts toward the end of Fall and runs through the middle of Spring. It tends to start between the ages of 18 and 30 and usually affects women more than men. At higher risk for SAD are those who have mood disorders, have family members with mood disorders, live far north or far south of the equator (such as Alaska), or in cloudy climates (such as Seattle).
The American Psychiatric Association has officially classified SAD as a major depressive disorder, one that occurs seasonally.
The Winter Blues
Around 10-20% of the US population get a milder version of SAD known as the “winter blues” which is characterized by feeling a little down during the colder months of the year due to the days being colder and shorter.
Are You at Risk for SAD?
How do you know if you’re full-on experiencing SAD or just the “winter blues”? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you feel sad or depressed almost every day?
- Do you feel anxiety often?
- Are you experiencing thoughts of hopelessness or worthlessness?
- Do you find yourself feeling agitated and irritated more often?
- Do you feel tired all the time? Find yourself sleeping more often?
- Do you have a hard time concentrating?
- Have you lost interest in things that used to bring you joy?
- Do you find yourself (more often than not) turning down social activities?
- Are you craving carb heavy foods and gaining weight?
- Do your arms and legs ever feel heavy?
- Have you been having thoughts about death or suicide?
If you are experiencing even just one of these symptoms, it’s best to connect with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis – and not try to diagnose yourself. These symptoms may be related to a completely different and more complex mental health issue, or an entirely different issue all together – such as a malfunctioning thyroid.
What Questions Should You Ask Your Healthcare Provider?
Once you speak to your healthcare provider and s/he has diagnosed you with SAD you’ll want to make sure to be your own best advocate and find a treatment plan that makes sense to the both of you. Ask them questions like:
- What treatment options do you think will work best for me?
- What can I do to prevent future episodes?
- Is light therapy a good solution for me?
- Do you think I should take antidepressants?
- How long should I continue treatment?
- What sort of diet would you recommend? Would seeing a nutritionist help?
- In addition to all this – what else can I do to feel better?
What causes SAD?
Unfortunately, there’s no one answer for what actually causes seasonal depression – but researchers have some theories and many of them tie to how the change in seasons affects the amount of light people are exposed to.
Biological Clock Change
One of those theories is called “biological clock change.” Your body has a biological clock that regulates your mood, how you sleep, and your hormones. When the amount of daylight you’re exposed to changes – your biological clock goes out of sync which can cause SAD.
Let’s say for example: you usually get up when the sun rises at 6:00am, do your work day, come home, and still have a couple hours of sunlight left over. In the fall you follow the same schedule – but now it’s dark when you wake up – and dark when you’re driving home from work. Whereas before you had a few hours of sun exposure, you now have none.
A Chemical Imbalance
If you’re at risk for SAD, chances are you have less serotonin activity than the average person. Because sunlight helps increase serotonin levels – a decrease will have the opposite effect and can lead to seasonal depression.
Less sunlight can also lead to a vitamin D deficiency which can affect your mood and your serotonin level. In addition – less sunlight can also cause the body to overproduce melatonin, leaving you feeling a bit sluggish and tired during the winter months.
Is SAD Treatable? Preventable?
The good news with SAD, is that it is treatable, and sometimes even preventable. A treatment plan may involve any combination of treatments from light therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to antidepressants, vitamin D to a “prescription” for spending time outdoors. A prevention plan could include things like eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, spending time with friends, speaking to a mental health professional, and antidepressant medication.
Travel Nursing Might Help!
As a travel nurse – one way that might help mitigate the effects of SAD is to choose an assignment(s) in warmer and sunnier climates during the fall and winter months. Places like Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico are all excellent options.
Days of Sun Per Year on Average
- Arizona: Sunny 85% of the time
- California: Sunny 68% of the time
- Colorado: Sunny 71% of the time
- Hawaii: Sunny 71% of the time
- Nevada: Sunny 79% of the time
- New Mexico: Sunny 76% of the time
- Oklahoma: Sunny 68% of the time
- Wyoming: Sunny 68% of the time