When Seasonal Affective Disorder & Grief Coexist

Stephanie Pritchardby Stephanie Pritchard, LPC, NCC

Surely you have noticed the chill in the air and the turning of leaves from lush green to yellows, oranges, reds and browns. The cooler weather and beautiful fall colors are a sure sign that fall is here and winter will soon follow. This also means that the amount of daylight we have each day is slowly dwindling. According to Psychology Today, as many as 10 million Americans will start to feel the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a change in mood that happens around the same time each year and affects a person’s ability to function. It’s sometimes referred to as seasonal depression or the winter blues. It can also be attached to a mood disorder diagnosis, like major depressive disorder “with a seasonal pattern.”

SAD is characterized by any combination of the following:

  • Feelings of sadness or despair
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Low energy
  • Feeling agitated or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling sluggish
  • Increased thoughts of death or suicide

Mayo Clinic cites people with winter onset SAD are more likely to display weight gain, craving of high carbohydrate foods, fatigue and sleeping too much. Spring/summer onset SAD, which is less common than winter onset, is more likely to include insomnia, decreased appetite, weight loss or anxiety. The symptoms must be present at about the same time of year for at least two years to be deemed a “seasonal pattern.”

Grief & SAD
Grief affects everyone differently, but many grief reactions people experience are similar to those of SAD.

Some commonalities include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Sadness or depressed mood
  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Hopelessness
  • Increased thoughts about death or suicide

Many people experience a resurgence of grief reactions each year near the anniversary of their loved one’s death. If your loss occurred in the fall or winter months, it can be especially difficult to distinguish if a person is experiencing primarily grief, SAD or both simultaneously.

Although it’s not always possible to identify with certainty which symptoms are a result of SAD and which are attributed to grief, it’s worth exploring so you can begin to identify ways to help yourself feel better.

Treatment of SAD
If you have been experiencing a shift in your mood at about the same time each year for at least two years prior to your loss, you may want to talk with your doctor about treatment for SAD.

According to Mayo Clinic, the exact cause of SAD is unknown, but researchers believe that some contributing factors include changes in our sleep/wake cycle, and serotonin and melatonin levels as a result of decreased levels of sunlight exposure in the winter months. The result is altered sleep patterns and a change in mood.

SAD should resolve on its own as the seasons change, but there are treatments available to help you feel better through the winter months. The most common treatments are light therapy, anti-depression medication and counseling.

Light therapy or phototherapy is usually the first treatment option to consider, as it is non-invasive and has few side effects. Light therapy involves using a light therapy box for a certain amount of time each day, usually in the morning, to mimic the sun’s light. You should not look directly at the light, but instead have it enter your eye indirectly. If you can, position the light above your head so that the light would enter your eye at about the same angle as the sun would.

Light therapy boxes do not require a prescription, but you should talk to your doctor about the intensity, timing and duration of using the light, as well as how to choose a good quality light box (one that does not omit UV light).

Helping Yourself Through Grief & SAD
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, regardless if that grief coexists with SAD, there are steps you can take to ease the burden of grief:

  • Recognize that each person experiences grief differently. Try not to compare your own grief experience to others who are coping differently.
  • Seek support through friends, family, clergy, a counselor and/or a grief support group. Having at least one person to talk with about your grief and your loved one can make a difference.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight, when possible. Outdoor time can be limited during the winter months, but try to get outside at least daily even if it’s just a trip to the mailbox or post office. If you are confined to your home, create a cozy space next to a window where you can sit and enjoy the natural light. Open blinds and curtains to let light in during the day.
  • Get outside if you can. When snow, ice and wind aren’t keeping you inside, get out of the house and move your body. Go for a walk, snowshoe, cross country ski or go on a sled ride with a child. A short brisk walk can drastically improve your mood and can help fend off the feelings of sluggishness and fatigue.
  • Be gentle with yourself through the grief process. Losing a loved one can be incredibly trying and you deserve grace as you process the loss.

Above all else, it’s important to remember that although the season you are in is challenging, it is just that—a season. Before we know it, the trees will wake up, the flowers will bloom, and we will be basking in the warm sunlight as spring arrives in all its glory.

Our hope is that as you come out of the season of deep grief you will enter a new season marked by growth, strength and true joy.

If you are struggling, we can help. For more information about our free community grief support services, visit our website or call 800-237-4629.

Stephanie Pritchard, LPC, NCC, is a grief specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.


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