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Help Your Teen Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder Before It Arrives

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Humans are connected to the rhythm of the seasons. Our behavior changes significantly over the course of the year. It depends on where we live, of course. Assuming we live in an area that has four seasons, more or less, we adjust what we do based on the general weather conditions, i.e. the seasons.

Spring is about renewal. We get outside and enjoy the chill mornings and warm afternoons. We watch the flowers bloom and fill the world with color. Summer is about being outside in the heat and doing all the summer things. We go to the pool, the beach, and while away the endless twilight hours with friends. Fall brings back the cool evenings and mornings. We watch the leaves change color and we watch football. We break out our favorite sweaters in anticipation of the colder weather to come. Then winter arrives with cold weather, early sunsets, and – for some – loads of snow and all the activities that come with it.

The seasons change our behavior, so it’s no wonder that the seasons can also change – or at least have an effect on – our emotions.

Especially winter.

In addition to short days, long, cold nights, and (for some) snow, winter can also trigger an emotional state that’s more than the winter blues the title mentions. During the winter months, some people – even teens –  experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD.

We know winter is still months away, but the best time to prepare for the change in seasons is now. Teens with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) who know what’s coming and have practical coping mechanisms ready to put into action increase their chances of making it through the winter without feeling the worst effects of SAD.

The Facts on SAD

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), defines Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as an emotional disorder that peaks during a specific season and then fades when the season ends. The Mayo Clinic identifies SAD as a form of depression that corresponds to seasonal change. Research indicates about 6 percent of the U.S. population experiences major SAD, while around 14 percent of the population experiences minor SAD.

The Symptoms of SAD

We need to mention something here: some people experience SAD during the warmer summer months, as opposed to the cold, winter months. They embrace the cold weather, wool sweaters, the cozy blankets we snuggle up in during winter and don’t enjoy the summer much at all. They experience the same symptoms as people who experience winter SAD, but their experience is like a mirror: it peaks in midsummer, rather than midwinter. This article, though, is for people who experience winter SAD – our teens who don’t like going to and from school in the dark and would much rather be in shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops than a heavy sweater, a knit cap, gloves, and boots.

If your teen always hits emotional lows in the wintertime – and everyone in your family thinks of it as their yearly case of the winter blues – you might want to consider the idea that what they experience is SAD, rather than an aversion to cold weather.

During the winter, people with SAD report:

  • Feeling unusually lethargic
  • Feeling depressed
  • Having more relationship problems than during other seasons
  • Sleeping more than during other seasons
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Getting irritated often
  • Getting irritated by things that don’t bother them at other times
  • Gaining weight

For people with winter SAD, the winter holidays compound the issue. In theory, the month between Thanksgiving and the New Year is “the most wonderful time of the year.” It’s the time when we connect with our extended family and participate in longstanding holiday traditions.

Here’s something many of us don’t know: for people with SAD, the winter holidays can be one of the hardest times of the year.

Who’s at Risk of SAD?

The catch, for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is that family members can trigger a negative spiral of emotion. A casual remark here or an off-color joke there is enough. And since it’s the holidays, the norm is to say nothing and maintain the veneer of holiday cheer.

If you’ve seen everything you’ve read so far in your teen, then read this list to see they’re in a group that’s at high risk of developing SAD:

  • Women. Research indicates that men experience more intense symptoms of SAD, but more women develop SAD than men.
  • Youth. Your teen is part of this risk group. Younger people develop SAD more often than older people.
  • Mental health disorders. People who experience depressive disorder or bipolar disorder are more likely to develop SAD.
  • Family. If there’s a history of depressive disorder or SAD in your family, then your teen is at increased risk of developing SAD.
  • Location. Risk of developing SAD increases the further away from the equator you live – in either direction, north or south.

If your teen shows any of the symptoms of SAD mentioned above, and they’re in one of the high-risk categories, then their winter blues may not be winter blues at all. They may have SAD. Don’t despair, though. There are evidence-based approaches to treatment, and practical steps they can take that don’t involve formal treatment.

How to Deal With SAD

First, we need to say that if your teen experiences intense SAD, then you should consider seeking treatment from a mental health professional. Clinicians treat SAD with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, and light therapy. With that said, you can also start helping them manage their SAD independently, by encouraging them to take the following proactive steps:

  1. Get Out in the Sun. This is a paradox. The remedy is getting out in the sun, but when you’re feeling depressed, that’s often the last thing you want to do. Encourage your teen to resist the temptation to sit on the couch and binge-watch their favorite shows. Instead, open the blinds, let the sun shine in – and invite them to go out for a walk.
  2. Connect with People. This is essential. If you see your teen experience depressive SAD symptoms, encourage them to call a close friend, text a cousin, or meet friends or peers at a park for some quality outside time.
  3. Get Some Exercise. Exercise is a great stress reliever. It can elevate their mood almost immediately. And when the holidays arrive, no one will get mad if your teen steps out for a quick jog or brisk walk.
  4. Make Sure It’s Outside. When you exercise, do your best to make it happen outdoors. The fact that it may be cold means you need to plan. Wear a base layer, put on a hat and gloves, and once you get moving, you’ll probably feel great. Remember that the outdoors is not only for exercise: bundle up and take a walk around the neighborhood. Or better yet, find a way to take a walk in the woods, or spend time by a stream, a river, a lake, or the ocean. Nature has a way of improving mood that’s hard to beat.
  5. Travel.  If you know your teen gets SAD in midwinter, plan a trip to a warm climate in midwinter. It doesn’t have to be to the tropics – but that would work. Take day trips, take a long weekend -anything to break up the monotony and nudge you into action.

When you look at these tips, it’s easy to see that all five are actionable. Your teen can start now, to be honest. They can call a friend and meet for a walk outside. Do that, and they have four of the five covered at once.

Take Back Winter

Here’s a fact: it’s possible to have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) without having any other emotional or psychological disorders. It’s most common in people with mood disorders such as depression. But they’re certainly not the only people who develop SAD. If your teen experiences the same persistent low mood every winter, we recommend seeking the support of a mental health professional. They can confirm for you that SAD is indeed a real diagnosis. They’ll help your teen work through your emotions with techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which we mention above. Don’t be surprised when they give them an activity checklist just like the one above, because those things work.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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