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Seasonal Depression Explained

Seasonal Depression Explained

Changing seasons can fill people with excitement. Each new transition in weather brings annual holiday rituals, family traditions, and fun weather-centric activities! For some, however, certain seasons bring them more sadness than joy. This is especially true during the winter, when shorter days, longer nights, less sunlight, and more time indoors can all contribute to a rise in depression levels. When external changes in our natural environments also cause consistently negative changes to moods and how we process feelings, it’s most often attributed to something called seasonal depression.

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Also known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), seasonal depression can hit us unexpectedly, and leave in a similar manner. Roughly 5% of us experience some symptoms. No matter the length of duration or level of severity, it’s never a pleasant experience. Luckily, learning the signs can help you determine if what you’re experiencing is more than what many refer to as the winter blues

Seasonal Affective Disorder

So what, exactly, is Seasonal Affective Disorder? Simply put, it’s a type of depression that always affects an individual during the same months each year. Believed to be (primarily) triggered by a lack of exposure to sunlight, the name makes a lot of sense. Yet extra dark days aren’t the only forces at work when it comes to what causes SAD. Those with vitamin deficiencies and lowered serotonin levels have a higher risk of suffering from this condition. Usually, prior to giving an official diagnosis, doctors will look for a seasonal pattern of (negative) changes to one’s normally consistent state of mental health. They may also take bloodwork to check for abnormalities or chemical imbalances. 

Seasonal Depression Explained

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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.

SAD Symptoms

We do not generally advise self-diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder. Receiving an accurate diagnosis is key to finding the best course of treatment for your individual needs. You can, however, be aware of the possibility that you might be suffering from SAD by knowing what to look for. Like the winter blues, symptoms can include drowsiness, sadness, and or a lack of motivation. SAD is a bit more in-depth, though. It can also incorporate one or more of the following symptoms

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood swings
  • Panic attacks and anxiety 
  • Suicidal ideation 
  • Weight fluctuations 
  • Loss of appetite / carbohydrate cravings and bouts of overeating
  • Difficulty sleeping / sleeping more than usual 
  • Outbursts of anger or violence
  • Physical and mental exhaustion 
Seasonal Depression Explained

Furthermore, if not addressed, SAD can begin to affect many aspects of a person’s life. It can negatively impact friendships and other relationships, grades, work commitments, and countless day-to-day commitments/responsibilities. Difficulty concentrating, trouble connecting with others, and oftentimes feeling that trying is pointless have all been reported as factors by those who are affected. These external impacts, which often have unpleasant consequences, compound internal struggles. Many blame themselves and wonder why they can’t “pull it together” like everyone around them seems to be doing with ease. 

Although SAD is most common in people aged 18-30, and occurs most often during January and February, anyone can be affected at any time of year. Take me, for example: A 39-year-old who lives on the East Coast, out by Boston. My seasonal depression always occurs in November, and it usually gets triggered around the time we turn the clocks back. Losing that hour of sunlight teams up with past annual traumas, and I find myself more moody and emotional than normal. 

Remember, nobody has to endure SAD alone. Aside from speaking with your doctor or a licensed therapist, here are some things that may help!

Options to Manage SAD :

Practice Self-Compassion

Seasonal depression is not an excuse to do nothing, as many false stigmas may have you believe. It’s an actual disorder, and one that you have through no fault of your own. Not every bad day has to be powered through! Give yourself grace during times when your batteries are drained, then re-charge and make a new plan of attack when able to think more objectively. Taking mental health days every so often can be extremely beneficial. They don’t mean you’re lazy, a failure, or weak! It takes strength to admit when you’re feeling at your weakest, and to recognize that rest is crucial to recuperate from internal setbacks.   

Seasonal Depression Explained


Our body needs sufficient levels of vitamins and what are known as “mood boosting” endorphins; chemicals that help our bodies hack into our happiness. Increasing your levels of vitamin D, melatonin, magnesium, serotonin, vitamin B-3, and or vitamin B-9 may be the key to relieving your symptoms.

When we are feeling depressed, our eating and drinking habits may not be the best. Proper nutrition and keeping hydrated can get lost in the mix. An easy two-in-one solution may be found through prepared meal shakes which are packed with vitamins as well! Though this is not a long-term recommendation, it may lift brain fog enough to get you started in the right direction. As always, consult with a trusted professional before you begin taking any type of vitamin or supplement. 

Light Therapy

Light boxes are designed to mimic sunlight which is proven to cause a chemical shift in the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, the type and amount of light that they produce can positively impact mood, sleep, and circadian rhythm. There are various types of light boxes so it is important to do research and talk with your doctor before purchasing or utilizing one. Some may work better for you than others, but typically the most effective ones create an exposure to 10,000 lux of light and produce minimal UV ray emissions. 

Light boxes are not FDA regulated. As with any other treatment option, it is important to follow all directions carefully and to consider the risks (though minimal). In general, light therapy is a very safe. Any side effects usually resolve quickly but may include eyestrain, headache, nausea, irritability or agitation. It is recommended to use the light box in the morning (before 10 a.m.) and for 30 minutes a day. You should get comfy and set up the box just to the side of (and about 12 inches away from) your face.

Light therapy doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s an inexpensive and relatively unthreatening option to try! 

Seasonal Depression Explained

Establish Care Routines

Self-care is just as important as getting through to-do lists. I know it may also sound just as demanding, terrible, or daunting; who wants to think about any type of a routine when already feeling their worst? In fact, although exercise has been proven to help with anxiety and or depression, I used to cringe when others told me to go for a walk, to the gym, or meet up with friends for a bit. Yes, exercising can indeed lower one’s stress, but it’s not always feasible for those of us managing physically limiting healthy conditions. On top of that, most bouts of depression leave individuals (including me) with no motivation. Unfortunately, even getting out of bed to brush my teeth or change my clothes can cause me to burst into tears.

Though off of this is true, there does seem to be a method to the so-called madness! Somehow, every time I manage to force myself to shower, I instantly feel better. It may be marginally better, but even if I simply get back underneath the covers after I’ve washed up and put on clean clothes, my mindset seems to shift; my spirit feels a little brighter, too. I even have friends who will put on full makeup every single day, even if they know they won’t be going anywhere. It helps some feel better to look better!  That’s a feasible (also free) task so, if you can muster the energy, why not try a face-mask, new shade of lipstick, or soak in the tub? 

Self-care can be self-reflective or self-indulgent, as well. Journaling, drawing, rewatching a favorite show or movie, reciting some positive mantras, doing meditation, and even spending time on Pinterest or mental health apps (like The Mighty) can all help improve your perspective. Any outlet you enjoy that fosters creativity or helps you to relax counts as a form of self-care.


Seasonal Depression Explained

Consider ESAs

Those suffering from mental health disorders have many challenges to face. Some people find the assistance of an animal companion to be the most constructive way to deal with their depression. Any animal that provides support, well-being, comfort, or aid to an individual through companionship, unconditional positive attention, and affection may be regarded as an Emotional Support Animal.

ESAs provide unconditional love, support, and friendship by simply being present and innately learning their owners emotional patterns. They help with a wide variety of mental health disorders including SAD, anxiety, panic attacks, autism, bi-polar disorder, and more.

If this is an option you’d like to explore, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help.

Keep in Mind

Seasonal depression can be a scary thing to deal with, and may feel overwhelming. Regardless of the coping  methods we suggested here, or ones you may try on your own, it’s important to remember that depression doesn’t have a universal fix.

There are many options out there to help or treat your SAD, and what works for one may not work for another. This is true for ANY disability, whether visible or invisible. Some individuals do benefit most from receiving counseling or therapy. Other individuals might see the most improvement using (monitored) prescriptions and or the holistic assistance of an Emotional Support Animal. All of these examples are widely accepted as treatments. Don’t give up on getting help if the first few treatments you try aren’t as effective as hoped for. Keep exploring new options until you find the relief you deserve. Remember that American Service Pets is here to assist in your ESA or PSA journey.

ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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