As the days get shorter and colder and we welcome the festivities of fall, many older adults notice that they experience a change in energy levels and mood that feels like depression.
If you’ve noticed a decline in your mental health when the seasons change, you’re not alone. Here’s a basic guide to understanding seasonal depression, its symptoms, and most importantly, how to cope with its effects so that you can take charge of your health.
Changing Seasons, Changing Mood
Many people experience some form of mood change as seasons shift from summer to fall. When there are fewer daylight hours and it’s colder, it’s harder to get outside and help our bodies naturally regulate our circadian clock using signals from nature. In addition, a lack of sunlight may deplete our Vitamin D stores, which may also lead to low energy levels and decrease our serotonin levels (a brain chemical that helps us regulate our mood). If you’ve noticed that you feel sadder, have trouble sleeping, have low energy, or experience a lack of motivation, you may be experiencing seasonal mood changes.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Whether your seasonal mood changes are dubbed “winter blues” or the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a matter of degree and duration. In general, winter blues last a shorter period of time and do not interfere with your ability to complete regular daily functions. Kristen Fuller, MD, explains in Very Well that SAD, on the other hand, “is more than the ‘winter blues’ because symptoms of SAD can be severe and even debilitating.” The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that "millions of American adults may suffer from SAD, although many may not know they have the condition.” The Centers for Disease Control report that “depression is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults,” and seasonal depression is just one of its many forms.
Fortunately, those suffering from seasonal depression have many treatment options available, both in consultation with a doctor and on your own at home. Here’s how to make your mental wellness a priority during this season.
Light Therapy (Natural AND Artificial)
One of the most important tools for combating seasonal depression is light. Increase your exposure to light, and many of your symptoms may dramatically improve. The NIMH explains that “since the 1980s, light therapy has been a mainstay for the treatment of SAD. It aims to expose people with SAD to a bright light every day to make up for the diminished natural sunshine in the darker months.”
If you can, take advantage of the morning hours outside and soak up as much natural light as possible. To supplement, buy a lightbox that’s designed to mimic outdoor light while minimizing UV rays. Using the lightbox for 20-30 minutes in the morning can help restore your body’s natural rhythms and increase serotonin levels. However, the NIMH warns that adults with certain eye conditions or taking certain medications may be more sensitive to light therapy, so be sure to consult your doctor.
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Creating and sticking to a regular social routine is one of the best ways to combat seasonal depression; the National Institute on Aging explains that “as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher rates of depression.” While outdoor activities may be more limited during the colder months, there are plenty of indoor options to stimulate your mind and body. Try planning to meet earlier in the morning so that you have a reason to get out of bed if seasonal depression is making you more tired than usual.
Get Regular Exercise
Regular physical activity can help regulate your body’s rhythms and boost your mood by flooding your brain with endorphins. Several studies have shown that increased physical activity may improve quality of life in older adults, so regular exercise is a great way to maintain your mental and emotional wellbeing even if you’re not battling seasonal depression. If you aren’t able to engage in vigorous physical activity, try low-impact classes like yoga to get the same benefits.
Focus on Nutrition
Focusing on your nutrition during bouts of seasonal depression is essential. Although you may crave more carbohydrates, make sure that you’re incorporating enough whole grains and vegetables to keep you feeling full and give you plenty of energy. To help combat lower levels of Vitamin D during these times, choose foods that are high in this nutrient, including fish and fortified grains. You may also need to add a supplement to your routine.
These wellness routines are a great way for active adults to stay holistically fit during the shift from summer to fall, so whether or not you’ve experienced seasonal depression in the past, try to incorporate these practices into your life today! And, of course, if you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression, make sure to talk with your doctor about the best treatment options available to you.