Why You're Feeling Sad and Low For No Reason

Feeling SAD and don't know why? A health expert weighs in. 

It's that time of the year again, fellas. The days are getting shorter and the skies are getting darker. There’s a slight nip in the air and well, the pollution is back. More importantly, morning snuggles are a delight and a hot cuppa is a delectable blessing...winter is en route!

And while winter brings with it Christmas cheer and new fashion trends, the change in weather also invites an unwelcome change in mood for some. "Aptly abbreviated as 'SAD', Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder wherein people experience episodes of depression at roughly the same time every year. These alterations in ones mood can be owed to the onset of winter, which usually subside with the arrival of spring," informs Dr Samir Parikh, Director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, who also frequently collaborates with myUpchar.

Even though 'summer depression' is a thing, it's a lot less common than the bouts of sadness one experiences as the sun shies away behind the clouds. The most common signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are: 

  • A loss of interest in activities 
  • Changes in appetite and sleeping pattern 
  • Lethargy and fatigue 
  • Irritability and trouble concentrating 
  • Extreme sadness or crying spells 

While you may attribute these temporary mood changes to be the seasonal 'winter blues', its actually a bit more complicated than just that. According to Dr Samir, the primary cause of seasonal affective disorder is the reduced exposure to sunlight, which directly impacts certain hormones including melatonin, the chemical which is primarily responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It is due to the above mentioned reason that seasonal affective disorder targets those who reside in temperate climates where the winters are harsh and days go by without much sunlight.

However, this year around things are a bit different (a lot different, actually). With the added stress and confinement at home due to Covid-19, we are already grappling with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, alongside increased physical distancing and self-isolation. Thereby, in order to manage SAD in the times of Covid-19, a multi-pronged approach is required.

Management of SAD

1. Acceptance in the first step towards management. "The first step is to acknowledge that such a condition exists. While ‘winter blues’ is a lot more common and does not require professional intervention, it is important to distinguish between and recognise the signs and symptoms of seasonal affective disorder correctly. If your changes in mood and day-to-day routine are negatively impacting your work or interpersonal relationships, it’s a good idea to seek professional help," suggests Dr Samir.

2. Phototherapy, or light therapy, wherein patients are exposed to bright light is one of the leading treatments for seasonal affective disorder. "This artificial light mimics the functions of natural sunlight and helps the body regulate the chemicals that impact our mood and behaviour," he adds. Medications that work to correct neurotransmitter imbalances may also be helpful in the treatment of this condition.

3. Counselling or psychotherapy may also benefit patients by helping them challenge negative thought patterns, build more effective resources to deal with stress, and make lifestyle changes to best cope with the condition.

4. Upholding and sustaining an active lifestyle is an imperative protective factor. Dr Samir urges people to focus on a few basic lifestyle habits to bring about a positive change in mood. Ensure that you sleep and wake up at the same time, irrespective of the time of year. Resist the temptation to stay in bed and get more physically active at home. Engage in regular physical exercise, even if it is at home. Try to stick to regular, healthy meals. Participate in recreational activities that make you happy or take your mind off of worries. Lastly, avoid using substances to cope with distress.

5. "Exposure to sunlight is of utmost importance. Keep your window shades open to let in as much natural sunlight as possible. Go for long walks outdoors or just sit somewhere where you can soak in the sunlight. A short break to visit warmer regions which offer more sunlight may also serve as a welcome relief," he adds. 

6. Most importantly, remember to stay connected, whether it be with colleagues, friends or family. "Social support is one of the most crucial factors when it comes to managing our moods, especially in the socially-distanced time we live in today," states Dr Samir. In the last few months, we’ve come to realise the value of spending time with people and the crippling impact that social isolation can have on us. "Even on the days you’re feeling low, make it a point to reach out to loved ones. Do things that you enjoy doing together or simply use the opportunity to talk. Open up and share how you feel – remember that you are never alone, even if it may sometimes seem that way," he says. 

Being seasonal in nature makes SAD a lot more predictable – it allows us to plan and prepare ourselves beforehand, to deal with it more effectively. Take note of any changes that you may experience in your mood or lifestyle and take action immediately. Reach out for help! Speak to a friend, a family member or a mental health professional at the first sign of distress. With a proactive approach and the right treatment, seasonal affective disorder can certainly be managed.