Seasonal Affective Disorder: My Love/Hate Relationship with Fall

Lively closeup of autumn leaves falling on the ground in a park, with a majestic oak tree on a meadow in the background lit by the sun

seasonal affective disorder

If you’re anything like me, you want to love fall. The beautiful colors of the changing leaves, the cooler weather, pumpkins, cozy sweaters, apple picking, hot (spiked if you like!) apple cider, and starting up the fireplace on those colder nights. And I do love fall for all those reasons, but I also kind of hate it.

How could a person hate fall, you ask?!

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is how. The Mayo Clinic states SAD, “for most people, begins in the fall and continues through those long winter months”. And particularly in Iowa, we’re talking about five full months of feeling less excited about daily life than we would in the spring and summer. For me, it can feel like my energy is being sucked out of my body, literally and figuratively. The shorter days, the bare trees, the cold and bitter weather all contribute to my energy level and general happiness. And of course the lack of sun in many fall and winter days has a huge impact on my overall mental health.

How common is SAD?

“In a given year, about 5 percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal affective disorder, with symptoms present for about 40 percent of the year”, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. “As many as 20 percent may have a mild form of it, often called the winter blues“.

Why does sunlight impact our mental health?

According to James Madison University, SAD “is triggered by the lack of daylight, during the shorter days of fall and early winter”. Below is an excellent graphic visualizing how sun improves our mental health:

Seasonal Affective Disorder
The image shows how sunlight enters through your eyes, how the hypothalamus regulates our circadian rhythm in ways that include melatonin, serotonin, and body temperature, and finally how improving the circadian rhythm can have positive effects on your energy, mood, and sleep patterns.

Where does Iowa rank?

Iowa ranks 11th out of 50 states in individuals who experience SAD more often. From the map below, you can see that the northern states experience SAD more often than our neighbors to the south. And as we all know, us northern states get all the snow, bare trees, and fewer hours/days of sunlight. Side note; did you know your pets could also suffer from the changing seasons? Check out this interesting article from PetMD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder
Image depicts a map of the United States of America by color (shades of blue and red). Shades of red indicate higher SAD diagnoses, and shades of blue indicate lower SAD diagnoses.

Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Feeling listless, sad or down most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy and feeling sluggish
  • Having problems with sleeping too much
  • Experiencing carbohydrate cravings, overeating and weight gain
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live

Fall and winter SAD:

Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include:

  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy

So basically I’m a bear readying myself for winter hibernation with my fall and winter SAD symptoms!

In all seriousness, SAD can definitely be debilitating at times, and because it’s considered chronic (happens year over year) it can start to have a severe impact on your mental wellness. It’s really important to talk to your doctor if you think you’re experiencing SAD, or even the more mild form of the winter blues. In addition to talking with your doctor, here’s a list of things that might help “snap” you out of your funk!

  1. Ready your mind in the fall
  2. Try light from a box (I personally love this one!)
  3. Use dawn simulators
  4. Consider taking antidepressants (there is zero shame in this path, if you need it!)
  5. Prioritize social activities
  6. Add aromatherapy to your treatment plan
  7. Stick to a schedule
  8. Exercise
  9. Let the sunshine in
  10. Take a vacation, or even a “staycation”
  11. Consider avoiding alcohol
  12. Keep a journal
  13. Get enough Vitamin D

Above all else, take care of YOU.

Sources:

“Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)”. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651. Accessed October 14, 2022.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder”. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2012/1201/p1037.html. Accessed October 14, 2022.

“14 Ways to Ease Seasonal Depression”. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression/treatment/ways-to-ease-seasonal-depression/. Accessed October 14, 2022.

“Seasonal Depression”. James Madison University. https://www.jmu.edu/news/counselingctr/2017/02-sad.shtml. Accessed October 14, 2022.

“Seasonal Depression in People & Pets Across America”. CertaPet. https://www.certapet.com/seasonal-depression-across-america/. Accessed October 14, 2022.

“Does Seasonal Affective Disorder Affect Pets”? PetMD. https://www.petmd.com/behavior/does-seasonal-affective-disorder-affect-pets. Accessed October 14, 2022.


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I’m Jamie Grimes and mom to our nine-year-old daughter, Avery, and wife to Jake. I’ve lived nearly my entire life here in the Cedar Rapids/Marion area and would have a really hard time leaving! I went to school to be a teacher, but never felt the passion of getting into a classroom after I graduated. I ended up getting my MBA and now work for a software company headquartered out of NYC. Instead of moving to NYC (which would be fun for a minute), I work from home full time. We also have a lovable and obsessed with me 13 year-old Chocolate Lab named Hayden. We bounce between dance two nights a week, piano lessons, and either basketball or swimming depending on the time of the year with our daughter. Even with only one kid, she keeps us busy! I enjoy gardening (flowers and plants), solar-powered anything…but preferably garden gnomes and bird feeders, baking with my daughter, and I really want to start quilting. I promise I’m not 80 years old.

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