Do you feel like December, January and February are the longest months of the year? Are you feeling less active than normal lately? Are you sleeping for longer than you usually do and finding it harder and harder to wake up in the morning? If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, then what you’re experiencing is the “Winter Blues,” and you are not alone.
It is estimated that about 10 million people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD in the US alone. And if you pair this disorder with grief over the loss of a loved one, the experience can be both dreadful and overwhelming. It can be challenging no doubt, especially when passing seasons remind you of happy memories with your departed loved ones.
It can especially be hard during the Yuletide season because the loss and the longing are intensified, and if you have SAD, things can go downhill. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, seasons change. There is no stopping the leaves from falling or the snow from enveloping the world. This is the beauty of life and the seasons.
Grief and SAD are a powerful and destructive combination. It can make even the strongest person crumble under the force of a barrage of emotions and be allowed to be swept away in their wake. It is important to understand Seasonal Affective Disorder and its underlying symptoms to cope with it or help a loved one with SAD emerge victorious.
Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is like any other mood disorder or depression but it is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons. According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD is a type of depression that begins in the fall and continues through the winter months. It was found that it has affected approximately 15% of the American population, most prominently women who live in states with less exposure to light.
In order to be diagnosed as suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a person needs to meet all criteria for major depression. Additionally, their symptoms need to coincide with specific seasons and should have been occurring for two years in a row. The individual must also experience season depression more frequently compared to non-seasonal depression.
The underlying characteristics of Seasonal Affective Disorder are:
SAD can directly impact your appetite, energy levels, mood, and sleep and can take a toll on your life. It affects your work, your personal and social life, and even your self-confidence and self-worth.
Most people suffering from SAD feel like their energy is being sapped out of them, leaving them with no purpose. You shouldn’t be surprised if you end up feeling like a completely different person from your usual self during this period.
While there are no specific causes of SAD, most theories associate the trigger to the reduced daylight hours in winter. According to research, the reduction of daylight time affects the body because it disrupts the following:
When the day transitions to night, your brain is triggered to produce melatonin. This is the sleep hormone that promotes good sleep. Come sunlight and morning, the brain automatically stops the production of this hormone to enable your body to transition from a state of sleep to a state of being awake and alert.
During the short days and long nights, your body tends to produce too much melatonin causing you to be low in energy, tired, and lethargic.
During winter, there is lesser sunlight, reducing the serotonin production in your body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps in regulating the mood. An insufficient supply of this hormone can lead to depression and also impact your appetite, memory, and sleep.
Your body's sleep-wake cycle or internal clock reacts to the changes in the environment and this includes the transition from day to night or the other way round. Short days and long nights are typical for winters and this also messes up your internal clock. As a result, you end up feeling sleepy, disoriented, and moody.
Your body’s circadian rhythm also influences your appetite, sleep, and mood.
Aside from the winter blues, there is also what is referred to as the Summer of SAD or summer depression. This is the opposite of the winter blues because these bouts of SAD are credited to long hot summer days with amplified heat and humidity.
Although the way everyone handles grief is different, one thing that’s common is that it impacts you physically and mentally. Many of the symptoms of distress are also similar to that of SAD.
Depending on the severity of your condition, your indicators may begin as mild symptoms and escalate and become more severe when the season progresses. Here are some symptoms that people who suffer from SAD experience:
For some people suffering from SAD, it means not having the appetite, while in others, the craving and the impulse to keep on eating is intensified. Either way, you end up either losing weight, or gaining weight.
The loss or lack of appetite is usually one of the early signs of SAD or of a possible relapse. Changes in your eating habits may also be attributed to restlessness or a lack of interest in performing activities like cooking. You don't want to get up to purchase meals, much less make the effort of preparing and cooking them.
Have you been eating better? Do you find yourself reaching for that pint of ice cream when you’re feeling low? Or craving for a pizza when you’re bored? This is emotional eating and it can also be a contributing factor for a change in weight. Eating helps to distract you from the feelings of emptiness and sadness that you are experiencing and food becomes a sweet escape from reality.
When a change in season affects and impacts you, you might find yourself not wanting to do anything. You are always tired, exhausted, and low in energy. You go to sleep but feel tired upon waking up. After taking naps all day, you still end up feeling sluggish and apathetic.
While some would have a tough time going to sleep or staying asleep, others might just keep sleeping and still end up being drained and weary – not interested in anything.
You will also experience unexplainable aches and pains in the body that were not there before. This may cause you to lose interest in activities that bring you pleasure in other seasons.
For people going through SAD, sleeping can be a problem, and this is not limited to the act of falling asleep. It is also about feeling rested after a good night's sleep.
Since there’s too much going on in your mind, your brain finds it difficult to shut down. This is a familiar feeling where you are physically tired, but your brain is still working and alert. It adds to the frustration of wanting to sleep but being unable to.
Additionally, your current depressing mood also keeps you from sleeping soundly, where even if you do manage to fall asleep, you don't feel rested at all. You feel more tired than last night, moodier and unfulfilled.
As the winter or summer season progresses, you find yourself worrying more about things that appear trivial during your regular non-SAD days.
You fret about anything and everything. It does an ugly 360-degree on your life. You can't eat well because you are anxious. The restlessness continues to hinder your sleep and you are unable to determine its cause. There's no logical explanation for your apprehension, but it's there, and it is something that needs to be acknowledged.
It is just a nagging feeling that won't go away, keeping you chained to your emotions. And the sad part is that they are based on nothing but have so much power over your life.
With SAD, you can hardly concentrate on anything – not even on yourself. There’s a lot going on thanks to all that pent-up negative emotions that are just ready to burst out while you are also feeling low, hopeless, and stressed.
A lack of focus can impact the way you function and may lead to you burning bridges along the way. Add in trying to cope with losing someone close to you, and you can see yourself staring blankly into space, not being able to function at all.
If you can get some work done, it is not that satisfying, and there's no fulfillment on your part. Also, you get easily distracted, which aggravates those feelings of thinking poorly of yourself.
Dealing with grief is a challenge in itself. Every person who lost someone has a distinctive coping process, and there is no timeline for this. The person can delay moving on or opt to live life while continuing to wallow in it. We don’t need to tell you that both are unhealthy.
While grieving is healthy and very much required, there will come a time when you need to overcome the grief. When you need to find a reason to live and how gratitude can change everything. Nobody said it would be easy, but it isn’t impossible either.
Bring SAD into the picture and you have almost the same symptoms as grieving and depression. This can be one massive test for the person experiencing all these and for their loved ones and friends. Below are some circumstances on how SAD impacts grief:
The combination of grief and seasonal affective disorder can worsen the symptoms that come with the feeling of malady. It makes dealing with grief almost impossible because the feeling of uncertainty and loneliness is heightened. In situations where your life partner has moved on to the next life, you lose all sense of purpose, and with SAD, that feeling is intensified. You just do not lose your purpose in life, but it leads to you not wanting to live at all.
As humans, we associate our feelings and memories with certain things and events. Summers are usually associated with childhood memories of frolicking in the waters, while winters are times for family reunions and gifts.
Spring can be your favorite season because that’s when you experienced love, while autumn is usually your time to travel. Alongside these memories are the people you shared it with, and if you have lost a special someone, the seasons can also be a reminder of the loss.
The winter blues can kick you pretty hard because that’s when the holidays are. The mere sight of a sugar cookie with a Christmas design can remind you of a person you lost. A Christmas carol can transport you back to your memories of love and grief. If a death anniversary falls during the time you are going through SAD, the emotions come back full force.
It may have been just a year ago or even five years ago, but SAD can reactivate your grief with so much force that you feel like it was just yesterday.
Grief alone would cause you to step back and look at things differently. When you are grieving, you want to be left alone to deal with your sadness and loneliness in your own space and time, and these phases cannot be rushed. With SAD adding to your grief, you'd feel like doing nothing. You lose sight of the joys of living because, again, you are grieving the loss of a loved one.
You are entitled to take your time and go through the grieving process of denial, anger, and acceptance so you can move on. With SAD, you tend to have difficulties overcoming these phases, and it stops you from functioning efficiently.
Grieving and being affected with SAD makes breathing and waking up hard. It makes doing regular household chores useless and going to work not a priority.
Since there is hardly any difference between the symptoms of grieving and SAD, it makes it all the more difficult to identify if the depression that’s consuming your life is due to the grief or because of SAD. You may need to wait for the seasons to change before you can find out if you are just dealing with your grief, but with the overlapping of indicators, the symptoms can just go on and on.
“One of the most courageous decisions you'll ever make is to finally let go of what is hurting your heart and soul”- Bridgette Nicole. And that is when the process of healing and recovery begins. Letting go is never easy but it is something that needs to be done. There are ways to help you go through your grief and SAD.
It is not an easy undertaking to begin with because most of the help you need will have to come from you. You have to find the will for yourself to get past all the negative feelings. Grief alone will always leave its mark. You can move on, yes, but you won't forget how it's supposed to be. However, there are healthy grieving methods that you can try.
When it comes to SAD, you can be more assertive in overpowering it. Start by looking forward to the changing of the seasons without dreading the transformation it will bring along. You have to consciously choose to make the rest of your life the best of your life.
While it is not easy, here are some ways to hasten the process.
Since melatonin is said to be a major contributor to SAD, undergoing light therapy may help cure your condition. Light influences your biological clock, and when there’s less light and short days like the winters, light therapy is the best option to combat it.
A full-spectrum light has an antidepressant effect. As part of the therapy, you will be situated about 2-feet away from a bright light source that indirectly shines in your eyes. The light is designed to be 20 times brighter than your typical room light setting.
This therapy session is also referred to as phototherapy and typically lasts for about 10-15 minutes per day and gradually increases to 30-45 minutes depending on your response to the treatment.
Note that you do not directly look into the light source during the session as it can damage or cause strain to your eyes.
Based on previous studies, light therapy has been known to yield high recovery rates after several sessions of the treatment. As each session may trigger a different response, some sessions may last longer than the others and you may also undergo two sessions a day depending on the recommendation of your doctor. People who respond well to light therapy are advised to make it a daily routine until spring, where they can be out under the natural sunshine.
Just like with other treatments, there are also some expected side effects but these are very minimal. Be cautious if you have a history of bipolar disorder because it may trigger a manic episode. People with sensitive skin should be careful too.
This is another way of administering light therapy. A dawn simulator is a device that progressively increases the amount of light in your bedroom, especially in the morning, to mimic the rising of the sun to wake you up.
The light will gradually increase for over 30-45 minutes, just like how it does with natural sunlight. The best thing about this is, you don't have to wake up in darkness, but instead, you wake up in full sunlight. This can assist your circadian rhythm and improve your mood.
Although phototherapy works for most people, others might not react to it positively. In such cases, your doctor might prescribe medications like antidepressants. These drugs act on the serotonin levels of your brain to help reduce your SAD symptoms.
In the US, the FDA-approved drug bupropion is used to treat seasonal affective disorder. But just like with most allopathic medicines you can expect to have some not so sound side effects.
This is a common therapy for seasonal affective disorder. Once you find an effective therapist, it can be successful for you. This therapy aims to curb the negative feelings, thoughts, and behavior patterns that trigger and make your SAD and grief worse.
These talk therapy sessions help you manage and react better to your symptoms and teach you effective ways to deal with your anxiousness and stress.
Most people have positive feedback after going through a series of CBT, and the good news here is, it doesn’t have any adverse effects compared to medication or even light therapy.
Talk it out! Either to a professional therapist or trusted family members or friends. When you are in a situation where you are trying to overcome an emotionally crippling loss while dealing with the overwhelming effects of SAD, it helps to talk to someone who may have walked the same path.
A professional therapist can also help you understand your current predicament. You can talk to this person without worrying about being judged since they've handled similar cases in the past. You can share your raw feelings – the fears, insecurities, loss, etc. An experienced and empathetic therapist can guide on coping with the change and managing everything.
Therapists can help with perspective. They can help you realize what's happening and provide you with better ways to deal with it. It is not an overnight recovery process but a long and painful one because you have to let it all out, but you will feel like a new person – renewed and with a purpose by the end.
While you are seeing a therapist, you can also join therapy groups. Knowing that you are not alone and others are going through the same pain of losing someone when dealing with SAD can be comforting. This is a therapy for seasonal affective disorder with grief but it also opens up an avenue for you to share your feelings and listen to others as they battle the same enemy.
Knowing that there are others like you can make all the difference. Hearing other people's stories can also inspire you to be better while reassuring you that overcoming SAD, and grief is possible.
Even if you claim not to be a religious person, sometimes you have to trust in Divine Intervention through your church's leaders. You cannot expect them to explain what's going on scientifically, but you can expect them to be willing to listen to you with an open mind and heart.
Church leaders have that gift of understanding and readiness to listen and say a kind word or two. When the winter blues or the summer depression kicks in and your loss weighs you down too much, having someone who can provide you sincere comfort means a lot.
Your family and friends would want to help you in any way they can, but most times they are unsure of how to approach you. While most people are equipped to show support especially during the first year after loss, many often are hesitant about approaching near and dear ones affected by various types of depression for fear of being shut out.
On your part, you can proactively reach out to them. As difficult as it is, talk to them about what’s happening to you aside from the obvious. Some might not even be aware that SAD is a reality and that you are going through it.
Sure, family and friends share your grief, but they won't understand and can't help you with your disorder unless you ask for their support and understanding.
Usually, after knowing your current predicament, your family and friends will be driven to gather more information on how to support you in dealing with grief and seasonal affective disorder.
You need to find creative ways to cope with your grief and depression. Get out of the house and explore your neighborhood and the other places near your area. Don't let the weather be a hindrance, even if it is dreary, overcast, and cold. Layer and bundle up and go out for a walk. Team up with an exercise buddy and try out the new gym.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve your mood and one of the most effective ways to decrease seasonal affective disorder.
The best way to ensure you stick to an exercise routine is to set goals for yourself. If you enjoy walking, set a maximum number of steps that you need to complete every day. Gradually increase the number of steps.
The bottom line is, you have to get out of the house, especially if you are living alone because just being home and cooped up in darkness, would get you nowhere and will just leave you feeling more depressed.
There are times when it is hard to speak or open up even to close family members and trusted friends. There’s the stigma of being judged and when you are dealing with grief and SAD, criticism is the last thing you need to hear and deal with. People can be unforgiving and easy to judge; unfortunately, it is part of the nature of humans.
Even if this is the sad reality of life, don't bottle up all your thoughts and emotions. Release it by creating a journal. You can write absolutely everything you want. Let the pages of your journal and your pen be your channel of release.
Pour out your frustrations, regrets, grief, insecurities, and all the pent-up doubts in your journal. Put into words what you want to happen – what you need to happen for you and your life. Make plans. Create a bucket list.
It's entirely up to you. It is not healthy to keep everything bottled up inside or try to handle everything yourself. Now more than ever, you need an avenue to let go and be relieved. Know more about writing letters as a form of grieving.
Usually, people are good at handling their grief when they have something tangible to hold on to. By being creative, you can adopt different coping mechanisms to deal with your grief. A popular and very favored option today is the use of memorial jewelry.
Cremation jewelry for ashes, for therapeutic reasons, is a top choice in families today. It is a simple way of remembering and honoring your loved ones. With so much memorial jewelry to choose from, it is best to broaden your understanding of these memorial keepsakes. The common choices would be photo engraved jewelry or fingerprint jewelry.
You can also choose a photo engraved keepsake jewelry that will best represent your loved one. It is not as simple as having a pendant and a picture. There are online resources like choosing the perfect photo engraved jewelry that can ensure that you get what your heart wants. This may also help you with your grieving and acceptance.
Getting through SAD while grieving for a loved one is an everyday battle, so have simple armor ready to help you slowly recover while you heal through the grieving process.
Having them close by can give you the motivation to continue with life and overcome your grief and help you cope with your symptoms of SAD.
Most people dealing with grief and SAD do not realize how hard it is for loved ones to keep idle and just watch as you get lost in your grief or suffer through the debilitating symptoms of SAD. They may feel like they are walking on eggshells when talking to you – not knowing what to say or do but desperately wanting to help.
If you find yourself on the other side of the glass looking in as a dear family member or friend struggles with grief and the burden of SAD here’s how you can show your constant support and unwavering love:
You can drop by their house and bring a few snacks, or you can share a meal.By visiting, you also get an idea of their current state, and whether they are able to manage the routine that goes into daily living including the upkeep of their home. Major signs of neglect are warning bells that your loved one needs help.
You can also regularly check on your loved ones by giving them a call or sending messages. Social media and messenger applications can come in handy during this time because you can just video call to say hi and talk for a few minutes. Letting them know that people care for them can give them comfort in times of uncertainty and sadness.
There are times when you can be a good friend or a supportive family member just by being there, ready to lend an ear. You need not utter a word. All the talking can be done by your loved one who is in so much grief while battling SAD. Just be available for the venting.
Plan days out as a group of friends or just the two of you. Get your loved one out of the house, and you can take a drive or just walk around in the local park or step into a favorite coffee house or restaurant.
Being alone makes grief and SAD worse. If you can do your bit to reduce that alone and miserable time, do it. You can have lunch then visit a museum or have a morning jog followed by some healthy breakfast. There are many things that can be done. Although your loved one may need a little coaxing, don't give up. Just keep on trying and extending your invitation.
Give someone a reminder of their loved one. There's nothing more beautiful than a photo engraved keepsake or a personalized memorial gift. This is a small reminder that while their departed loved one is not around to share their life, their memories will remain and like them, would need to move on, but remembering their departed loved ones can be done simultaneously.
This can also serve as a cue that their loved one would want them to continue and live life. As a loved one, you are extending not just your ears and your love, and that tomorrow would be a wee bit better.
SAD has a profound individual effect and no two people with react to Seasonal Affective Disorder exactly the same. Find some answers to some of the most commonly asked questions surrounding SAD, grief and coping with the winter blues.
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to grief. A person with SAD may exhibit some or all of the symptoms of said disorder. However, symptoms may differ from person to person and depending on the severity of the disorder.
In most cases, the holidays are the worst time for people with SAD. This is just not because of the winter blues, but the holidays are festive and are marked by family gatherings.
Holidays come with fond remembrance of past celebrations and happier times, and the “empty chair" is a glaring reality of the loss. Even going to the shopping mall and buying gifts, listening to Christmas carols, and preparing the meals can reawaken the feelings of grief and make it almost physically unbearable for a person simultaneously coping with SAD.
Studies indicate that both genders can have seasonal affective disorder, but women face a longer recovery time than men. Some investigations found that women can be up to nine times more probable to be detected with SAD than men.
Geographically, women living farther north are more affected since the days here are shorter during the winters. Research shows that women who have SAD show extreme depression, tiredness, and anhedonia – symptoms that are very minimal to zero when it comes to men.
This may also be due to the fact that it is easier to identify these symptoms in women since they are more open and accepting of their feelings, where men have hesitations of showing their genuine emotions.
SAD begins in young adulthood, and the good news is, it gets better – meaning lesser symptoms and more manageable symptoms as the person gets older. This is attributed to handling of emotions and reacting differently to situations.
Dealing with SAD and the loss of a loved one can be managed more effectively if you know whom to reach out to. Reach out to family and friends to lend a helping hand. You can also seek help and guidance from your church leaders and even professional therapists.
Take comfort knowing that you are not singled out and alone in this battle of the mind and the heart. There are mental health hotlines in the US that you can reach out to get the help you need and make this dark journey more bearable.
Like other forms of depression, SAD is linked with the instabilities in your serotonin activity; antidepressant medicines termed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are prescribed to treat SAD.
These agents can considerably heighten your mood. Frequently used SSRIs are citalopram, escitalopram, fluoxetine paroxetine, and sertraline. These are not specific to SAD but are used for all kinds of depression.
When combined, SAD and grief can fall into the category of complicated grief. By definition, complicated grief is being in an eternal, intensified state of bereavement that prevents you from healing.
The symptoms of complicated grief are also almost the same as SAD. There's an intense feeling that your life is without meaning, you have difficulty carrying out daily regular activities, you become bitter and withdrawn from friends and routines leading to extreme depression, guilt, self-blame, and other negative emotions.
This is a double-edged sword because SAD and grief are such a dark and destructive pair. It may draw you closer to surrounding people, given that they have a complete understanding of what you are going through and also if you are opening up to them and willingly asking for their support.
At the same time, it can also cause strain and destroy relationships, especially if you keep on shutting out people who want nothing but the best for you. This is why it is essential to know the severity of the situation you are in so the surrounding people can also meet you halfway and provide you with the emotional and physical support you need.
Yes, without question or hesitation, you should. Asking for help is not an indication of weakness. Getting answers if you are confused with what's happening to you the first step you take to help yourself.
Talk to your parents, siblings, and other people you trust and feel comfortable with. Talk to a professional if you need to. But always communicate before you’re so deep with your grief and depression.
Grief is a difficult emotion to handle. Seasonal affective disorder is just as bad, and when you go through these dark times while dealing with the loss of a loved one at the same time, you have to be stronger than usual, else it will be very easy to be consumed by your loss and depression.
As hard as it can be to move on from a loss and overcome SAD, you can. Don't be afraid to ask for help from family, friends or professional help and also look into utilizing other techniques such as light therapy to help you overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder. It is possible, and when you do, you become a stronger person.
February 21, 2021 by Frances Kay