Beating SAD w/ Neuroscience This Winter 🧠
The 3 Most Common Mistakes People Make When Battling It & How to Beat It!
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinically recognized condition that can significantly impact mental health.
SAD is caused by changes in light and seasons, which affect brain chemistry and circadian rhythms.
Common symptoms of SAD include isolation, neglecting physical health, and overlooking professional help.
Three tools to combat SAD are light therapy, a structured daily routine, and supplements like vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium.
Remember, healing is not linear, and it's okay to have days that are more challenging than others. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.
What Is Season Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than just "winter blues," especially for those healing from trauma.
It has its own place underneath depression in the DSM, in fact!
Today, I’d like to help you understand the neuroscience behind SAD, and some common pitfalls people run into when battling it, and offer three neuroscience-backed tools to help you navigate through these challenging months.
Let’s dive in!
Understanding Seasonal Depression
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as seasonal depression, is a clinically recognized condition that can significantly impact mental health, especially for survivors of abusive relationships who may be dealing with Complex PTSD.
Neuroscience of SAD
The human brain, a complex organ, is significantly affected by changes in light and seasons.
Certain brain regions, like the hypothalamus (my favorite part of the brain), play a crucial role in this.
The hypothalamus helps regulate our circadian rhythms – the internal biological clock that dictates sleep-wake cycles.
As daylight diminishes in winter, these rhythms can be disrupted, leading to feelings of depression.
Moreover, neurotransmitters – chemicals in our brain that regulate mood – are also impacted.
The most notable among these is serotonin, often dubbed the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter.
Research shows that sunlight directly influences serotonin levels. In the brighter months, sunlight helps maintain higher serotonin levels, boosting mood.
However, as sunlight decreases in winter, so does serotonin production, potentially leading to depressive symptoms.
Additionally, melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, is affected by the change in light.
Longer periods of darkness in winter can lead to an overproduction of melatonin, causing lethargy and mood swings.
What About A Traumatized Brain?
Considering that the population I work with is generally struggling with trauma, I thought it’d be important to add in how this can exacerbate SAD during the winter!
Trauma can alter the way the brain responds to stress and emotional regulation, leading to heightened responses to stress and mood changes.
This heightened reactivity, combined with the altered serotonin and melatonin levels during winter, can make survivors more susceptible to the effects of SAD.
They might experience more intense depressive episodes, have increased difficulty making decisions, or find it harder to cope with the mood changes that come with the changing seasons.
In essence, while SAD affects many individuals, for survivors of abuse with Complex PTSD, its impact is often more significant.
3 Common Mistakes in Battling Seasonal Depression
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) presents unique challenges, and it's crucial to approach it with an informed strategy.
However, I see a lot of people unknowingly make certain mistakes that can exacerbate their condition, here are 3 of the most common!
Mistake One: Isolation
During the colder, darker months, it's tempting to withdraw and isolate oneself.
However, this isolation can significantly worsen the symptoms of seasonal depression, especially for those with a history of trauma.
Isolation is never good for the brain, we are made to care and connect with others.
This is why it didn’t surprise me to see that depression & anxiety increased by 300% after COVID!
That being said, social interactions play a vital role in mental health!
They engage specific neural pathways in the brain, particularly those associated with reward and emotional regulation.
The act of socializing releases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin, which contribute to feelings of happiness and connection.
When people isolate themselves, these neural pathways receive less stimulation.
This lack of stimulation can lead to a decrease in the aforementioned neurotransmitters, exacerbating feelings of depression and loneliness.
Mistake Two: Neglecting Physical Health & Outdoor Activities
Another common mistake is neglecting physical health during the winter months, especially outdoor activities!
Many tend to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle and may indulge in less nutritious food choices (guilty as charged).
As I have repeated over and over in this blog, the mind-brain-body connection is a fundamental aspect of overall well-being.
Physical activity, for instance, is not just about keeping the body fit; it has direct implications for brain health.
Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, known as 'feel-good' hormones, which have mood-lifting properties.
It also stimulates the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons, enhancing brain plasticity.
It’s like MiracleGrow for your brain.
It's also common to want to stay indoors during the colder, darker months, but avoiding outdoor activities can be counterproductive for those with SAD.
Natural light exposure, even when it seems insufficient, is crucial for mood regulation and maintaining circadian rhythms.
By not spending enough time outdoors, individuals miss out on the benefits of natural light, which can help improve serotonin levels and stabilize the body's internal clock!
Additionally, outdoor activities often involve physical movement, which is beneficial in releasing endorphins and enhancing overall well-being as we just discussed.
Mistake Three: Overlooking Professional Help
Many individuals try to combat SAD on their own, often underestimating the condition's severity.
This is particularly true for trauma survivors, who might have a complicated relationship with trust and seeking help.
Professional help, such as therapy, is crucial in managing SAD effectively, especially for those with Complex PTSD.
Therapists can provide tailored strategies that are informed by an understanding of how SAD & trauma impact the brain.
Therapy, particularly trauma-informed therapy, can help in rewiring these neural pathways.
As you know, I’m trained in and love Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), so this is always my first suggestion because it’s based on brain science.
That being said, techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be helpful as well, considering it’s very goal and action-oriented generally, which can enhance the regulatory capacity of the prefrontal cortex.
Moreover, therapy can provide a safe space for survivors to process their trauma and learn coping mechanisms that are effective and personalized.
Overlooking this resource can mean missing out on a vital support system that can significantly aid in managing both SAD and the complexities of Complex PTSD.
If you’d like to learn more about Mind, Brain, Body Lab’s programs and services, I suggest you check out our website!
Three Actionable Tools to Beat Seasonal Depression
Alright, now that you know what to avoid, what can you do about it?!
That’s what you came here for, so let’s dive in.
Here are three neuroscience-backed methods that can significantly help, especially for survivors of abuse with Complex PTSD.
Tool One: Light Therapy
Light therapy involves exposure to a light box that emits a bright light (mimicking natural outdoor light).
It has been shown to be highly effective in treating SAD.
Neuroscience Behind It:
The science of light's impact on the brain is fascinating and crucial in understanding how light therapy works.
Light affects the brain's chemistry and circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep and mood.
When light enters our eyes, it travels to the brain's hypothalamus, where it affects the production of serotonin and melatonin.
Light therapy helps to normalize these imbalances, improving mood and restoring regular sleep-wake cycles.
When searching for a lightbox, you’ll want one that’s at least 10k lux, this will ensure you’re getting powerful enough light into your eyes!
This is especially important in the morning right when you wake up.
Tool Two: Structured Daily Routine
A structured daily routine can be incredibly stabilizing, especially for those with SAD and Complex PTSD.
The brain thrives on predictability and structure.
Establishing a routine helps regulate the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which in turn regulates everything from sleep to hormone levels to mood.
When we have a routine, our brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin at optimal times, which helps in maintaining a balanced mood and reducing anxiety.
For survivors of trauma, whose internal rhythms may be disrupted due to their experiences, establishing a structured routine can provide a sense of control and normalcy.
This predictability is reassuring for the brain, offering a sense of safety that can be crucial in healing from trauma.
I suggest people start with a morning and night routine first, as these are the routines that will have the most profound effect on your sleep!
After that, having habits and routines in the 6 areas of the Heroes Body are the next most crucial areas.
Tool Three: Supplements to Support in Beating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
While lifestyle changes and light therapy are crucial in managing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), certain dietary supplements can also play a supportive role.
These supplements can help address nutritional deficiencies that may exacerbate symptoms of depression.
Vitamin D is often called the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies produce it in response to sunlight exposure.
During the winter months, when sunlight is scarce, many people's vitamin D levels drop, which can negatively affect mood.
How It Helps:
Vitamin D is involved in brain health, and low levels have been linked to depression.
Supplementing with vitamin D can help offset the lack of sun exposure during winter, potentially improving mood and alleviating some symptoms of SAD.
What Do I Use?
During the winter months, I use Performance Lab D3 + K2 to get my extra dose of Vitamin D in!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are crucial for brain health.
They are integral components of cell membranes in the brain and are involved in cell signaling!
How It Helps:
Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements can help reduce the symptoms of depression.
The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s are believed to play a role in this effect.
For survivors of trauma, who may have altered brain chemistry due to their experiences and are battling SAD, omega-3s can be a valuable addition to their diet.
What Do I Use?
As I’ve written about numerous times, I use Performance Lab Omega-3 to ensure I’m getting Omega-3s from algae, NOT fish oil!
Magnesium plays a vital role in brain function and mood regulation.
Low levels of magnesium are linked to an increased risk of depression overall.
How It Helps:
Magnesium supplementation can have a calming effect on the nervous system and is involved in the synthesis of serotonin.
For individuals with SAD, magnesium can help in managing anxiety and improving sleep, which are often disrupted in this condition.
What Do I Use?
I use Performance Lab Sleep to get an extra boost in magnesium along with 3 other key minerals to ensure I’m getting the highest quality sleep that I can!
Conclusion and Encouragement
As always, as you embark on any kind of healing journey, remember that patience and self-compassion are key!
Healing is not linear, and it's okay to have days that are more challenging than others.
I hope these tools make the ride a little less bumpy on your way to beating SAD this winter!
Please let me know if you have any questions, I’m always here for ya, and until next time… Live Heroically 🧠
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