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How to Deal With Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How to Deal With Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

Seasonal anxiety disorder is an unusual condition. During specific seasons - usually winter, but not always - a person experiences anxiety and depression for no obvious reason, other than the change in the season.

At first this condition was believed to be a myth, and it was blamed on the winter months typically being a tough time (holiday blues, colder weather, illnesses, etc.), but now psychologists do believe that some people's mental health is affected by the change in seasons, and this can have an effect on your anxiety.

Introduction to Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

Seasonal anxiety disorder is a layman term for the clinical term ‘seasonal affective disorder’. Usually, this disorder is considered to be a subtype of depression and it may be given the name “major depression with a seasonal pattern”. However, there is a lot of overlap between depressive and anxiety symptoms, so seasonal affective disorder may also present primarily in terms of anxiety symptoms that come about at a certain time of year.

Seasonal anxiety disorder, or SAD, is a complicated disorder where a person tends to experience more anxiety during certain months. Usually it's the winter months/colder months, but there are some people that seem to experience SAD during the summer months.

Possible Causes of Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

It's not entirely clear what leads to SAD, but most experts believe it has to do with exposure to sunlight. During the winter months, especially, most people (especially in today's society) get very little exposure to sunlight.

Sunlight modulates your hormonal melatonin levels. It’s believed that melatonin is linked to serotonin, the neurotransmitter (or brain chemical) most commonly linked to anxiety and depression. A subgroup of the population may be born with a gene mutation that requires sunlight in order to release positive (good feeling) neurotransmitters in the brain, according to a 2003 paper.

SAD isn't something that has a clear cause, but it appears almost certainly linked to sunlight and sleep rhythms, which are all affected by the seasons and your melatonin levels.

What is SAD Like?

Even though SAD may be linked to the seasons, the experience is not different to non-seasonal forms of anxiety. In fact, the issues at play with SAD - like low serotonin - affect those with generalized anxiety disorder equally. Seasonal anxiety disorder appears to simply be a different way to experience anxiety, where the anxiety occurs in certain seasons rather than all year round.

How to Stop Seasonal Anxiety Disorder

One of the most amazing things about anxiety is that even when a disorder is "caused" by something else, you can still manage it by working on your mental health.

A 2015 study has shown a close link between psychological resilience, coping strategies and serotonin levels. It’s possible that engaging in certain coping strategies may increase the levels/activity of serotonin in the brain; however, further research is required.

So even though you may have the symptoms of SAD, your anxiety really possible to manage. Researchers generally recommend the following:

  • More Light/Light Therapy Clearly the most pressing need is to try to get more light in your life. Psychologists have actually proven that something called "light therapy" where you shine a bright light in your face for an extended period of time seems to control SAD symptoms. But you can also try to get outdoors more and into the sun.
  • Exercise Exercise is also a crucial part of an effective anxiety management strategy. Exercise releases neurotransmitters that improve mood, while simultaneously burning away stress hormones and excess energy. It's very important that you're actively exercising to help control some of your anxiety.
  • Spending Time With Others It's also very important that you spend time around others. With something like seasonal anxiety, the issue isn't only that winter causes your brain to create anxiety - it's also that winter brings on a bunch of issues that can create anxiety, such as more time alone in your room. Make sure you're out and active, even if you don't feel like you want to be.

SAD is a tough condition, and the fact that it's still a little bit difficult to understand makes it unusual to treat. But like all anxiety, SAD can be treated. By making smart decisions that allow you to cope with your life stresses and experiences, you can effectively reduce the impact that it has on your life.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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