Cailin Jessup cooks almost every day in the winter. She also journals, listens to podcasts and loses herself in other indoor activities that take her mind off the gloomy weather outside.
For the past few weeks, Jessup, 23, has felt tired and unfocused, making it hard to stick to daily routines, she said. Like many others with seasonal affective disorder, her mood takes a downward dive when the skies turn gray.
“Sometimes it’s really hard to get out of bed,” she said. “I wake up and have absolutely no energy. There’s brain fog. It’s just not fun.”
Seasonal affective disorder typically occurs during cold and cloudy weather and can cause despair, poor motivation and fatigue. A dreary winter can be especially tough for Sacramento residents, who are unaccustomed to the consistent rains the region has seen this month.
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“People here don’t seem to be prepared to cope with it,” said Kenya Ballard, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Beautiful Minds Medical in Auburn. “They’re not prepared for these longer winters. We’ve had a drought for five years, people haven’t had prolonged rain for quite a while. So when it hits, they tend to be less prepared.”
The condition affects between 4 and 10 percent of Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Its symptoms are similar to those of major depressive disorder, except it “clears once the spring hits,” Ballard said.
In the fall and winter, the lack of sunshine can cause a shortage of vitamin D and a drop in seratonin, a chemical that helps the brain regulate mood. Some people are more susceptible to those changes than others depending on the environment they were raised in and whether they have an existing mental illness or a family history of depression, said Dr. Caroline Giroux, medical director at the Sacramento County Adult Psychiatric Support Services Aftercare Clinic.
“It’s a biological response,” she said. “As we know, during the fall and the winter, there is a decreased amount of daylight, and this affects the substances we have in the brain. What we find is that serotonin and other neurotransmitters are involved. Usually medications that target serotonin are effective.”
An even smaller number of people experience reverse seasonal affective disorder, which occurs with too much sun. David Bartley, a Rocklin resident and loan officer who lives with depression year-round, said his feelings of worthlessness are exacerbated more on sunny days than dark ones.
“If I feel a certain way and I look out and I see people who love the summer and are out fishing and running around and everything else, part of me feels like I shouldn’t feel the way I do,” he said. “It sets up this internal conflict and becomes a hopeless situation.”
Regardless of whether the skies are sunny or gray, too much of any one type of weather can trigger depressive symptoms for some. When the weather finally changes after a string of similar days, Bartley said he feels “a rush, and a sense of relief.”
“Too much sun, too many clouds, it’s easy to get into a pattern that creates the ideal conditions for my depression,” he said. “It’s why connection is so important to me, because it breaks up the same kinds of conversation.”
Staying involved with friends and activities is one tip that therapists give clients brought down by the weather. Here are a few others:
Try light therapy
Many doctors recommend treating seasonal affective disorder with a light box, a small device that mimics outdoor light by exposing the user to 10,000 lux of light, with minimal ultraviolet radiation.
Light boxes do not require a prescription, although doctors recommend consulting a professional before purchasing one. They should be used for 15 to 30 minutes in the morning for a seratonin boost. Using a light box later in the day could disrupt sleep, Ballard warns.
“We want serotonin during the day and melatonin at night,” Ballard said. “Seratonin gets into the retinas of your eyes, and your eyes tell your brain to make antidepressants.”
As with any mental illness, experts encourage people with seasonal affective disorder to eat well and stay active to improve brain function. Taking walks, exercising, drinking water and sticking to an adequate sleep routine can help people feel balanced and focused.
Marla McMahon, a Sacramento psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, recommends clients get outside, even while it’s cloudy, to breathe fresh air and take in natural light.
“Exercise is a natural antidepressant and can be so helpful in mood regulation,” McMahon wrote in an email. “This is a time when self-care should also be added to the routine. It's a great time of year for restorative yoga, warm baths and hot teas.”
Sufferers of seasonal affective disorder often experience anhedonia, or a loss of interest in previously rewarding activities, Ballard said. This can lead to social isolation and disrupt daily life.
Ballard helps her patients stave off anhedonia by encouraging them to stay socially active and meet up with friends, even when they feel like being alone. She also advises them to find a new winter hobby such as knitting, coloring, reading or journaling.
“I work on finding something they can engage in, to keep their mind occupied with pleasurable activities that don’t need to be done outdoors,” she said. “Pick up a project, take an online course. Something that’s not dependent on opening up your door and seeing sunshine. You just have to give your brain a pleasure reward.”
Bartley said he stays on track by engaging with friends and co-workers on a daily basis.
“For me it’s all about connection – creating micro relationships wherever I go – at the grocery store, when I get gas,” he said. “Connection, for me, represents a possibility of wellness. If not, I’m going to go into a place of isolation on a sunny day or on a cloudy, rainy day.”
Experts recommend that anyone feeling the severe effects of seasonal affective disorder talk to their care provider about treatment options, which could include therapy and medication. More mental health resources are available at Stopstigmasacramento.org or by calling 916-446-1434