As winter temperatures begin to drop, so will many people’s moods.
The Tufts Employee Assistance Program facilitated a webinar titled “Maintaining Mental Health During Seasonal Change,” for employees on Nov. 15. Hosted by employee wellness organization KGA and sponsored by Tufts Human Resources, the webinar covered topics ranging from broader seasonal mood changes, how seasonal affective disorder can impact daily life and the risk of holiday-related stress.
Laura Jacobson, KGA director of EAP clinical services and a licensed clinical worker with over 32 years of experience in the mental health and employee assistance field, discussed what causes SAD and the best ways to mitigate symptoms.
“The symptoms start in the late fall or the early winter and they go away during the spring or summer,” Jacobson said. “This is what we refer to as winter patterned seasonal affective disorder, or winter depression … which does impact approximately 10 million people in the United States … [and] impacts women four times more than men.”
Jacobson explained that SAD is more commonly found amongst residents of northern states due to shorter winter days.
“Why is it that people do experience this change in mood during the winter months?” Jacobson said. “The days start to get shorter, nights get longer — I’m sure we’ve all been experiencing that recently. What we do know is that this decline in sunlight affects our serotonin levels in our bodies and serotonin impacts our mood.”
Serotonin — a naturally occurring hormone that increases with sun exposure — is responsible for many bodily functions.
“Sunlight enters our eyes and stimulates part of the retina to produce serotonin,” Jacobson said. “Serotonin helps regulate our mood, our emotion, our appetite, digestion, and when the level of serotonin is decreased in our bodies, it impacts how we feel.”
Jacobson said that many studies suggest people with SAD produce excess melatonin, which is “central for maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycle” and can contribute to additional weather-dependent drowsiness.
“If you find yourself wanting to stay in bed longer, being sleepy, really having trouble getting out of bed, that’s a symptom of seasonal affective disorder,” Jacobson said.
According to Jacobson, SAD and the “winter blues” tend to be more common in people with underlying mental health conditions that include major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic disorder.
However, Jacobson asserts that it is a correlation and not causation: “This doesn’t mean that if you have a history of [mental health concerns] that you are going to develop SAD … but there is a correlation.”
She then explained ways to manage and treat SAD and emphasized the importance of professional consultation. Treatments can include light therapy, types of psychotherapy, vitamin D supplements and antidepressant medications such as SSRIs.
Jacobson then highlighted the risk of mental health crises when shorter days are combined with holiday stress.
“All of a sudden, we’re faced with the holidays and it becomes this perfect storm where we’ve got something that’s going on internally for us because of the change in daylight hours, as well as these external factors around all the pressures and stresses that come with the holiday season,” Jacobson said.
The holiday season can often be filled with excessive shopping, large family gatherings, extensive traveling and long meal preparation, which Jacobson noted all act as mental health triggers.
“Some of us might also have this mindset that the holidays need to be perfect,” she said. “We’d like them to be perfect, but it’s not necessarily a realistic goal. Having some compassion and recognizing that the holidays don’t necessarily need to be perfect 100% of the time might be a good strategy to use.”
Jacobson concluded the presentation with a few self-care strategies for this time of year, which include a regular sleep schedule, exercise, self-appreciation, laughter and another unique stress-management tactic.
“Some people find it that it’s helpful to set up a ‘worry time’ each day,” Jacobson said. “You have a whole list of all of these things that you need to get done … it’s possible to compartmentalize that and say that at four o’clock in the afternoon, every day, I’m going to give myself ten minutes to worry about the stuff … [to] get it out of my system during that time.”
Jacobson finally reiterated the importance of getting outside, even during the winter.
“If you can, bundle up and get outside, even if it is freezing cold, even for 15 or 20 minutes during the course of the day … to get your body moving and also get the sunlight that we know can help increase positive mood,” she said.