When we talk about seasonal depression, the short, frosty days of winter probably come to mind. After all, the bulk of people who experience seasonal mood changes feel the most stress and anxiety during the thick of winter.
But seasonal affective disorder can happen at any time, in any season. And right now, as we transition away from summer and settle into our new fall routines, many people will notice that they’re feeling a bit more anxious or melancholy than they did a month ago.
“This time of year, when the days become shorter, you can already start to develop some of the symptoms of the seasonal pattern of depression — even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a medical diagnosis,” Dr. Eric Golden, a psychiatrist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Hospital, told HuffPost.
Here’s why fall can cause so much anxiety or sadness
There are multiple reasons as to why the change in seasons affects our mood. For one, our schedules tend to ramp up in the fall and with that comes new stressors and responsibilities that can impact our well-being.
The days are also getting shorter and we’re less exposed to sunlight. According to Dr. Paul Desan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, the brain is pretty sensitive to the light-dark cycle.
Scientists are still learning about all the ways in which daylight impacts the neurotransmitters in our brain that influence how we feel, but growing evidence suggests that the change in seasons can trigger chemical changes in the brain. We know, for example, that lower levels of daylight are associated with lower levels of serotonin — the neurotransmitter that’s associated with depression and mood regulation, Golden said.
Lastly, some people’s brains may start preparing for the fact that winter is approaching. If they experience seasonal depression or anxiety in past years, they may get anxious that the hardest time of year for them is right around the corner, Desan explained.
Seasonal mood changes are a spectrum. According to Desan, data has shown that most people feel better in the summer than the winter, but the symptoms can really vary in terms of severity. Some may only experience milder symptoms, like less energy, while others will develop major depressive disorder.
Much of this is influenced by a mix of risk factors, such as your underlying health, family history, where you live, along with your age and gender. The main takeaway, however, is that most people feel worse in the winter and better in the summer, Desan said.
How to cope with the seasonal stress
Golden said you don’t have to wait until the symptoms are severe to start coping with seasonal mood changes. Even mild symptoms, when unmanaged, can impair your ability to get through your day as smoothly as you’d like.
The first step is to check in with yourself and take note of any mood changes, such as a dip in your energy levels or mindset. It can also be helpful to set and stick with a routine. Make a point to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Because light has such a profound impact on our brain, it’s crucial to get some light exposure every day. You could do this with natural light — by penciling in some outside time — or with bright light therapy. If you go the light therapy route, Desan said you’ll want a medical grade light device that emits 10,000 locks (you can find some of his suggestions here).
To reap the full benefits, you’ll want to sit in front of the light for about 30 minutes every day, ideally first thing in the morning. “Light is more powerful the earlier in the morning you’re exposed to it,” Desan said. And though some people will notice improvements within a week, it can take about a month of light therapy to start feeling better.
Aside from that, you’ll want to stick with all the activities proven to keep us feeling good. Everything you do to improve your well-being — regularly exercising, socializing and eating a well-balanced diet — affects how we feel. If these strategies don’t help or if your condition deteriorates, reach out to a doctor to discuss your symptoms and other forms of treatment, like psychotherapy and medication.
Just because seasonal mood changes are normal, that doesn’t mean struggling with them has to be. “It’s important to take a preventive and proactive approach to staying on top of it,” Golden said.