Brain Health

Seasonal Affective Disorder and the ADHD Brain

Do dark winter days have you feeling down? Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, disproportionately affects adults and children with ADHD. Here, 6 tips for fighting depression this winter, from limiting your alcohol intake to building a support system.

ADHD and Winter Depression
ADHD and Winter Depression

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations in light. SAD impacts 10-20 percent of the population in dim Nordic countries, and may disproportionately affect adults and children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) everywhere.

“As seasons change, there is a shift in our ‘biological internal clocks’ or Circadian rhythm due partly because of changes in sunlight patterns,” says Andrea Rogers, Supervisor for Intensive Outpatient Programs in the Department of Psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. “These changes combined with the stresses of holiday travel, sensitive family dynamics and managing expectations can build a recipe for depression during the winter months. Juggling these variables can be challenging and can make it difficult to enjoy the joys of the season.”

According to the National Mental Health Association, the most difficult months for SAD sufferers are January and February, and younger persons and women are at higher risk.

According to Rogers, melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, is produced at increased levels in the dark. Melatonin also may cause symptoms of depression. When daylight savings time ends, and it begins getting dark earlier in the day, production of the hormone increases, which may cause depressive episodes. These biological variables mixed with environmental conditions such as cold weather, emotional reactions to holidays, and anxiety can create a recipe for depression that can cast a blue cloud over winter.

[Take This Self-Test: Symptoms of Depression in Adults]

Phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors during the day or arranging homes and work places to receive more sunlight can be helpful.

Rogers recommends the following six tips to proactively reduce or eliminate environmental stressors and symptoms of SAD in people with ADHD:

Let Go of Unrealistic Expectations

Adults with ADD sometimes struggle with feelings of failure and disappointment during the holiday season when their unrealistic expectations don’t come to fruition. Rather than trying to recreate the perfect holiday of years past, acknowledge your opportunity to build new traditions, and add new wrinkles to old ones. Embrace change!

Pace Yourself and Accept Help

In many families, winter is a time of celebrations, including family gatherings and activities. For adults with ADHD or parents of children with ADHD, these variables added to existing stress, anxiety, and clutter can ignite a firestorm of tension.

Better manage additional responsibilities and social commitments during this time by learning to pace yourself and organize your time. Make a list and prioritize your most important activities. Accept help, and allow for quiet time at regular intervals.

[What Is a Mood Disorder? Recognizing and Treating Depression]

Acknowledge Your Feelings

The winter holidays and Valentine’s Day do not automatically banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely. If you have experienced the loss of a loved one, are far from family and/or friends, or are generally affected by changes in weather and light, it is OK to acknowledge that these feelings are present — even if you choose not to express them.

Don’t Drink Too Much!

Excessive drinking only perpetuates anxiety and depression. If you are prone to depression around this time of year, keep your alcohol intake to a minimum.

Create a Support System

Spend time with people who are supportive and care about you. If that isn’t your family, then spend this time with friends. If you are far from home or alone during special times, make a proactive effort to build new friendships or contact someone you have lost touch with.

Seek Treatment

Sometimes, SAD can get the best of us, even when proactively reducing stressors. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression during the winter months that are uncommon for you any other time of year, contact a mental health professional who can provide counseling and treatment to help you “weather the storm.”

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