In Latin America, many countries do not experience seasonal changes. I distinctly remember the first time I experienced the seasons; I was 21 years old and living abroad for the first time. Having been born and raised in Colombia, the changes in light and temperature that occur in each season were a totally new phenomenon that filled me with things to do.
Here in Colombia, it simply rains or doesn’t — sometimes both happen on the same day. But at 21, as I watched the time go by, I discovered how the light changed and realized that the shorter the day, the harder it was for me.
Of course, I knew there was a relationship between the number of hours of sunshine you get and how your mood changes. I also assumed that being my first time with seasonal weather, the more difficult parts of the year were even more challenging for me, simply because they were new and I had no idea what to do with them.
I learned that there are at least two forms of seasonal sadness: one, the milder kind, which can be caused by things you don’t like, such as the vacations coming up, difficulty letting go of summer, or going back to work. And two, the type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
While its acronym may seem obvious, learning that this is a specific type of depression surprised me. There is much debate about the existence of SAD, but even so, the National Institute of Mental Health acknowledges it and provides quite a bit of information about it.
What is SAD all about?
Most sources agree that the change in light triggers the autumn blues and SAD — not just in the number of hours available or intensity, but the way light is perceived by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the area of the hypothalamus responsible for producing and regulating hormones involved in circadian rhythms and affecting mood and sleep.
However, SAD has several characteristics, including the classic symptoms of depression:
- Feeling depressed most of the day, almost every day.
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Experiencing appetite or weight changes
- Having trouble sleeping
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- In the case of winter SAD, additional specific symptoms may include the following
- Sleeping excessively (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, especially carbohydrate cravings
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling of “hibernation”)
The curious thing about it is that this disorder is seasonal, so for a person to be diagnosed with SAD, they must have these symptoms for two consecutive years, during a specific season.
What can you do if you have the autumn blues?
First things first: if you have symptoms of depression, you should talk to your doctor. A licensed physician can help you better understand what is going on with your body. Understanding this can help you feel calmer.
However, you can also make some changes on your own, before or after you call your doctor. These ideas come from The Savvy Psychologist podcast; the last one is a suggestion of my own.
Get out and see the light
Since much of the sadness you feel is caused by the SCN not getting enough light, so consider getting out as much as you can. Especially while the weather is still nice and the daylight hasn’t shortened that much yet. This may mean: getting up an hour earlier, changing your work habits and going to that terrace café more, taking your dog for longer walks, etc.
Exercise is good for your happiness, even if sometimes we resist it. Exercise helps us produce endorphins, and if you try aerobics, cycling, or even walking the dog, you can kill two birds with one stone and move more while getting more sunlight.
Drink coffee (in moderation)
Several studies suggest that coffee and tea intake has protective effects against depression and even reduces the risk of suicidal ideation in women, as Medical News Today reminds us. One of the possible explanations for this could be the natural acids in coffee, which can help reduce the inflammation caused in specific brain cells of people with depression.
However, moderation should be kept in mind, as drinking too much coffee can increase anxiety.
Seeing other people may not be our first choice when we’re feeling moody, but you can actually think of it as a form of emotional hygiene as well. Flossing may not be your idea of fun, but you understand that it’s good for you, right? The same goes for socializing. Sometimes we don’t want it, but, still, it can be good for us. Try meeting up with friends once a week if you want to try a gentle change. This can help you with all of the above suggestions, and it can also be helpful just to change your perspective and get some variety in your day-to-day life.
Reflect on your accomplishments
When I started researching for this article, I found several references to the idea that the autumn blues were related to a reluctance to let go of summer, a reluctance to accept change, and a disappointment in yourself for not having accomplished everything you wanted to do during the ending season. So, my suggestion would be to take a moment at the beginning of the fall to consider and write down all the good things that have happened during the past few months, all the things that have been done. Think about all the good things that can happen because of what you have done during the year. Think of the last quarter of the year as an opportunity to harvest all the hard work of the last nine months.