Does the idea of darkness during your 5pm commute home from work get you down? You’re not alone if you’ve noticed that it’s not just the flowers in your garden but also your mood that has “wilted” with the cooler temperatures. During the fall and winter months, people may experience a shift in their mood as we collectively adjust to less sunshine and more cold weather. But it might be more than just “the blues” if it is a persistent sadness that feels present most days and is interfering with your ability to function or engage in day-to-day life. If this is a pattern that’s occurred for at least two years in a row and impacts you at the same time each year, it might be Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Many people around the world suffer from SAD, now identified in the DSM-5 as Depressive Disorder with seasonal pattern. It is suspected that seasonal depression is, in part, caused by a reduced exposure to sunlight resulting in disruption to our natural circadian rhythm (the body’s “internal clock”), as well decreased levels of the hormones serotonin and melatonin which help to regulate mood, sleep and appetite. Not surprisingly, populations living farther from the equator experience higher rates of seasonal depression than places closest to it. Thus, this type of depression occurs more frequently in populations throughout the northern rather than southern parts of the United States. In fact, one study found prevalence rates to be 1.4% in Florida and a much higher 9.7% in New Hampshire. (1) Much of the research also indicates younger people and women tend to be at higher risk for winter depressive episodes.
People who already struggle throughout the year with clinical depression or bipolar disorder may also experience worsening symptoms during specific seasons. For those with seasonal depression, the episodes of depression that occur in the fall/winter are significantly greater than those episodes that occur throughout the remainder of the calendar year. In any case, it’s important to pay attention to seasonal patterns in your mood so that you can prepare and seek appropriate treatment and support as needed.
Common symptoms of seasonal depression
Seasonal depressive episodes generally set in during late fall or early winter. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include:
- decreased energy, lethargy
- increased sleep, difficulty waking
- social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- increased appetite, unintended weight gain
- persistent sadness, hopelessness
- difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks
(Though less common, some people experience spring/summer depressive episodes and those symptoms can look a little different, more often encompassing sleeplessness, irritability, decreased appetite and weight loss, etc.)
How might seasonal depression affect people with eating disorders?
A depressive episode can impact eating patterns and thus, impact eating disorder recovery efforts. Individuals suffering from seasonal depression often report increased appetite. Specific studies have indicated that individuals with SAD tend to experience more cravings for foods that are higher in carbohydrates and rich in starch and report increased consumption of carbohydrates when depressed, anxious or lonely. (2) Combined with decreased energy and declining mood, these cravings can place one at higher risk for binge eating behaviors.
Other research has shown a seasonal component to depression especially for those individuals suffering from Bulimia Nervosa. (3) The research revealed that patients with Bulimia Nervosa tended to experience seasonal patterns of mood and appetite similar to those described by many with SAD. (4) Some research has further speculated with regard to a possible genetic link between eating disorders and susceptibility to changes in mood related to the season. (5)
Treatment Options for Individuals affected by seasonal depression
So what can you do when the light outside your window has turned to darkness and, perhaps, this has added fuel to the eating disorder fire as well? The good news is that there are many different treatment approaches that are helpful to those suffering from seasonal depression.
- Light therapy or Phototherapy is a commonly prescribed treatment for individuals suffering from seasonal depression. In light therapy individuals sit in front of a “light box” for approximately thirty minutes daily or per their doctor’s recommendation. Research has shown that light therapy can relieve the symptoms of seasonal depression in as many as 70% of cases. (6)
- Anti-depressant medications can also be helpful in treating winter depression and have been shown to improve mood, energy and sleep patterns. One of the ways in which these medications work is by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.
- Evidence-based therapies for depression such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can also be helpful for seasonal depression.
- Behavioral interventions in your daily life can also be helpful in reducing symptoms of seasonal depression. Consider trying to incorporate some or all of these:
- Engage in activities with friends and family each day to ward off feelings of lonliness or isolation.
- Make a point to get outside in the sunlight for at least a portion of the day if possible. Schedule a walk with your colleague during break or sit outside instead of inside while you do your daily perusing of Facebook, however…
- Be mindful about whether online social networks make you feel worse instead of better OR if they take up large amounts of time that could be better spent connecting with people in person (see #1 above).
- Plan to get plenty of sleep on a consistent schedule; do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day, and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep/day.
- Avoid the use of alcohol or other substances which can worsen depressive symptoms, complicate eating disorder symptoms and disrupt sleep.
Focus on the highlights of the changing season.
If you struggle with seasonal depression, a long autumn and the approaching winter can feel daunting. Holiday stress, can make things even more difficult for individuals who are triggered by tense family dynamics, elaborate meals and social gatherings. This year, Instead of focusing on the doldrums of the season or annual stressors, consider looking for positive seasonal activities in which to get involved. Now is the perfect time to go to a holiday parade, paint a room in your house a new color, volunteer for a new cause, plan a weekend getaway, attend a recovery event, build a snowman or read a winter-themed book. It could also be a great opportunity to finish your summer vacation scrapbook or try a new activity like snow tubing or ice skating. You can even practice guided imagery or meditation – just because there is snow outside it doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself relaxing on a warm beach.
Try not wish away the winter season. Each season comes with its own set of challenges for individuals with eating disorders – just think of the onslaught of diet pressures throughout spring or the bathing suit saga of summer. So the key is not to just “get through” each season (there will be a new set of stressors on the next calendar page after all) but to learn to live mindfully in each season and find ways you can enjoy what it has to offer.
Above all else remember to ask for help when you need it. Talk to your treatment providers about your seasonal mood changes and they can help to devise an individualized treatment plan that works for you. If you are seeing a Registered Dietitian now is the time to talk with them about the food cravings you might be experiencing and devise an approach to cope and integrate more variety into your meal plan. Remember to open up and involve your support system– let your friends or family be a part of the process by sharing with them what you are going through. With help and support, you’ll be celebrating the Vernal Equinox in no time and reflecting on a well-spent, memorable winter.
For questions about treatment for co-occurring depression and eating disorders, please visit our website at www.eatingdisorder.org
Written by Amy Scott, LCPC
- Friedman, Richard A. (December 18, 2007) Brought on by Darkness, Disorder Needs Light. New York Times’’.
- Krauchi, K., Reich, S.,& Wirz-Justice, A. (1997). Eating style in seasonal affective disorder – who will gain weight in winter? Compr Psychiatry, Mar-April, 38 (2). 80-87.
- Lam, R.W, Goldner, E.M., & Grewal, A. Seasonality of symptoms in anorexia and bulimia. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 1996. Jan 19 (1): 34-44.
- Fornari, V.M, Braun, D. L., Sunday, S.R., Sandberg, D.E., Matthews, M, Chen, IL, Mandel, F.S., Halmi, KA & Katz, JL (1994) . Seasonal Patterns in Eating Disorder Subtypes.Compr Psychiatry. Nov /Dec; 35 (6): 450-456.
- Sher, L. (2001). Possible Genetic Link Between eating disorders and seasonal changes in mood and behavior. Med Hypothesis, Nov 57 (5): 606-608.
- Wein, Harrison ed. (2013). Beat the winter blues shedding light on seasonal sadness. NIH News in Health. Retrieved from http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/Jan2013/Feature1.