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Feeling SAD? Seasonal Affective Disorder is Real.

Even if we don’t get blizzards and snow storms, winter in Southern California can be challenging. Besides the fact that temperatures can drop to the 40s or lower, less daylight and rain showers can make it harder to get outside – which may make you feel like you just want to hibernate and sleep through the winter. If you start feeling down in the dumps during January, February, or March, it may be more than just having a bad day: you could have seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s closely tied to the seasons – many who suffer from it can start feeling blue in the fall, with worsening episodes through the winter that ease off in the spring. Basically, it’s depression that gets worse during certain times of the year.

Typical Depression Symptoms

  • Feeling depressed almost all day long, most days
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having low energy
  • Losing interested in activities you once enjoyed
  • Sleep problems
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Typical Winter SAD Symptoms

  • Having low energy
  • Frequent daytime sleepiness/sleeping more than normal
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving for starchy foods and sugars
  • Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)

Causes of SAD

Woman Turning Off Alarm Clock

Unfortunately, we still aren’t 100% certain on the specific cause of SAD. However, there are a few indicators and triggers:

Your own internal clock. Some people are naturally more awake in the mornings, while others seem hard-wired to be “late to bed, late to rise.” This internal clock, also called the circadian rhythm, may be affected by the decrease in sunlight.

Less sunlight may trigger a drop in your serotonin, a brain chemical associated with happiness and well-being.

Less sunlight may also trigger an increase in your body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Too much melatonin, and you may feel lethargic and sleepy.

Who’s Most Likely to Have SAD?

  • Younger adults (especially teens). Kids and young adults are at greater risk for SAD, so as a parent, it’s important to know the symptoms and what you can do.
  • Women are four times more likely than men to develop SAD.
  • Those with existing depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Anyone who lives far from the equator. While it’s much more common in areas really far north or south of the equator, Angelinos definitely get SAD – and because of our relatively sunny climate, it may be more difficult for us to figure out what’s going on.

Beating the Winter Blues

Woman looking up to the sky

If you don’t typically suffer from depression but do feel a little more ‘blah’ than usual during the winter months, lifting your mood can be as simple as:

  • Moving your chair near a window with a view.
  • Opening your curtains or blinds to let natural light into your house or workplace.
  • Taking a walk outside during daylight hours.
  • Better yet, work up a sweat and kick-start your endorphins, those feel-good hormones reduce your sensitivity to pain and promote a feeling of well-being.

Don’t Wait

However, if you’re feeling SAD because you have depression, don’t wait for the seasons to change. Talk to your doctor! There’s no reason to suffer, especially when there are so many treatment options. If you’re already being treated for depression, your doctor may recommend light therapy or a vitamin D supplement, or your doctor may decide to put you on a different medication.

If you haven’t talked to your doctor about feeling down, don’t worry or feel ashamed. Depression is a very real medical condition – it has nothing to do with willpower and it’s not your fault. Your doctor has your back, and so do all of us at AltaMed!

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Mental Health Matters

Mental Health is Part of Your Health

Couple at a Doctor's Appointment

The first step is recognizing that your mental health is your health. Your mental health can also affect your physical health in some serious and surprising ways. When you’re feeling down, you may be less likely to take care of yourself: you may skip dosages of a medication or not get enough sleep. You may also engage in riskier behavior, such as drinking or eating to excess, taking drugs, or acting out aggressively.

It goes both ways: people with chronic conditions may be more likely to suffer from poor mental health. And if you have a physical condition AND you suffer from depression, you may have worse health outcomes.

Understand the Difference Between Sadness and Depression

Tired Man

You’re probably no stranger to sadness: it’s an emotion that makes you feel bad or down, usually following an unfortunate or unpleasant event, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or ending a relationship. Sadness is a common, and even appropriate reaction to these circumstances.

But in some cases, the sadness becomes something more, and can manifest in intense and even physical symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue/loss of energy
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness

If you have any of these feelings that last almost all day, for at least two weeks, and it’s gotten to the point that it interferes with your daily activities, you may actually suffer from depression.

Depression is a serious condition. It may have its roots in an event, such as a major life change (getting fired, moving away from family and friends…even the stress from a happy event like getting married may trigger it). It can be a physical condition, or it may run in your family. Even getting less daylight can cause depression.

There’s a common myth that you can just snap out of it; perhaps if you just get some fresh air, talk to a friend, or treat yourself to a nice meal, you’d be able to cheer yourself up. But that’s not how depression works. It’s not a matter of will power, commitment, or positive thinking. Unless you get help, depression can last for months or even years.

Seek Out Professional Help

Woman Listening to Her Doctor

If you think you’re suffering from depression or mental illness, talk to a doctor. Under the Affordable Care Act, all health care plans are required to provide coverage for mental health care.

Your primary care doctor is a good place to start, since they already know you and your health care history. It may be easier for you, since you’re already familiar with them.

Getting Tested and Treated

Young Man Talking To Her Doctor

Once you’ve found a doctor, they can help you determine if you do have depression or another mental health disorder, its underlying causes, and the best treatment to help you feel better.

You may be given a physical exam and lab tests to help rule out other conditions. For example, if your thyroid gland isn’t producing enough hormone, you may experience depression-like symptoms, such as a low mood, fatigue, and weight gain or loss.

At this point, your doctor may recommend medication or refer you to another doctor for additional testing and treatment.

If your doctor recommends medication, you may need to try different medications before you find the one that works for you. Having bloodwork and a history of your symptoms will help your doctor tailor your treatment, but not every patient responds to every drug. If that’s the case, communicate your feelings to your doctor, be patient, and follow their advice about your prescription.

You Don’t Have to Suffer – and You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

Women Embracing Each Other

AltaMed is here for you, and we’re committed to your mental and physical well-being. To learn more about AltaMed’s behavioral health services, call 855-425-1777.

If you have suicidal thoughts and feel like you could be a harm to yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.

Mom and Daughter Hugging

Mental Health: Seek Help, Be the Help

Mental health and suicide have been topics of interest in the media due to the recent loss of several high-profile celebrities. At AltaMed, we are here to help so that mental health issues can be treated and do not lead to suicide. Although it may be hard, you can always ask for help and be of support to others.

Here is how you can take action:

Mother and daughter hugging

Seek Help

Seek professional help if you ever feel helpless or alone in your feelings. If you feel like you need to talk, open up to friends or family who you trust. If you feel like you need professional help, you can safely reach out to the Suicide Prevention Hotline anonymously. Once you open up and acknowledge the underlying issue, you’ll be able to move forward and work on treating it.

Two young people sitting and talking

Be the Help

Be there for those around you and look for warning signs. Speak with dignity and respect when discussing mental illness to create a safe space for others to open up without judgment. Be a positive influence on others and empower them. Encourage others to reach out to the resources listed below to get them the help they need.

Track Running

A Fresh Start

Every day is an opportunity to start fresh. Work on putting yourself first by doing things that make you feel good from the inside. You can go for a walk, dance to your favorite music, spend time volunteering and helping others, or hang out with friends or family.

If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, reach out to our Behavior Health team at (855) 425-1777. Our licensed clinical social workers are trained to help you cope when life gets stressful.

If you are in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the suicide prevention hotline today at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Feeling SAD? Seasonal Affective Disorder is Real.