Pumpkin Spice, Crisp Leaves, and the Blues

By on Oct 25, 2016

Is your mood falling along with the leaves of autumn? Are you tired, restless, on edge, irritable, or maybe even find yourself not wanting to socialize and enjoy life? Are you rationalizing to yourself that your low mood and weight gain are simply a result of your busy schedule? Don't brush these symptoms off! They could be indicative of a disease or condition referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

It's not a coincidence that the acronym for Seasonal Affect Disorder is SAD. Many refer to this time of year as Late Fall Lethargy or the Winter Blues. But, your low, sad mood, decreased energy, sleeping difficulties, sluggishness, lack of concentration, agitation, body aches and pains, and craving for carbohydrates are not necessarily a result of your busy, back-to-school schedule, but rather warning signs that you could be experiencing a mood or anxiety disorder. 

Autumn also provides us with a lens, or sneak peek, of what's to come. The fall and winter are full of festive gatherings, sugary snacks, gifts galore, and quality time spent with family. However, these happy moments are not always full of bliss for those who are isolated, disconnected, detached from family, or who constantly struggle with their mental and emotional health. 

For these individuals, fall and winter are a magnifying glass for what should've been, could've been, and still should be. This emptiness fills the waiting rooms in therapy and psychiatry offices alike. Clients report that they feel a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and purposelessness in their lives. Therapists often hear things like, "I don't know what's wrong, but I don't see it getting any better. I just want to be alone. There is no sense in leaving my house, as I have nowhere to go, and no one to go to."

Since psychiatric symptoms often present in a physical form, an adult may receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or an unknown/unfound demyelinating disease by a primary care provider. However, the truth and root of these symptoms for both children and adults, can be, and usually is our deeply embedded, unmet psychological and emotional needs. The good news is that there are things you can do to maintain your mental and emotional health during the fall and winter. Make sure to get a healthy dose of sunlight. Open your blinds, curtains, and shutters. Clinicians refer to this as phototherapy, as sunlight is imperative to maintain the healthy brain chemicals needed to enhance mood. Become an early riser! Take long walks, go to the park, but try to spend at least two hours per day outside, even when it’s cloudy! Meditate, join a yoga class! Exercise to de-stress. Exercise helps our brain to release dopamine, which is our pleasure chemical. Exercise is commonly known as a natural antidepressant. 

Avoid alcohol and carbohydrates. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. The initial feel-good effects of alcohol do not last. You may think you feel better, more relaxed, less tense, but the alcohol is actually worsening your mood and disabling your brain’s natural ability to secrete the amino acids required to elevate mood.

Carbohydrates are a great, quick fix for low energy. We crave them when we experience lethargy and exhaustion. Carbohydrates produce tryptophan, which is the precursor to the production of serotonin, which elevates mood. Holistic approaches to healthy lifestyles are wonderful and easily accessible. The problem with carbohydrate cravings is that we don't recognize them as a symptom of anhedonia. Stick with colorful foods like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, apples, pears and figs; all of which are available during this season! However, if your autumn anxiety or winter blues do not dissipate along with the implementation of positive lifestyle changes, it is time to see a clinician for a comprehensive mental health assessment to rule in or out a possible mood or anxiety disorder.

A good rule of thumb is to follow the two-week rule. If your tiredness, low mood, irritability, hypersensitivity, physical complaints, and carbohydrate cravings have persisted for two or more weeks, it is time to meet with a doctor and/or therapist. Early intervention is essential and results in positive outcomes. Unaddressed symptoms of SAD can lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior, social withdrawal, school and work performance issues, and substance abuse. Through early detection, accurate diagnosing, mental health counseling and medication management, the success rate for positive outcomes ranges from 70 to 90 percent, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It is never too late to seek assistance!