Is it laziness or seasonal depression? How to tell and what to do about it

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Are the colder temps making you blue? You’re not the only one. “When the days get short and there’s not a lot of sunlight, it’s very natural for people to have a certain degree of—if not depression, at least sadness, moodiness, and lethargy,” Joseph Rock, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic said to the Men’s Journal.

He mentions that it’s akin to emotional hibernation, which can often show up as lethargy and lack of motivation.

There’s hope for us, though. That cloudiness you’re feeling may not be full-blown depression, but a subset otherwise known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes SAD as a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sucking your energy and making you feel unlike yourself.

But why do weather changes and colder temperatures lead to an increase in depression symptoms? Researchers still don’t have an answer yet. However, the NIMH says researchers can learn more about what’s going on with you based on whether the following biological cues are evident:

  • Trouble regulating serotonin—one of the neurotransmitters involved in dictating your mood
  • An overproduction of melatonin
  • A decrease in the production of vitamin D

Although SAD is a milder form of depression, the symptoms may be exacerbated because of the current events. Leela R. Magavi, MD, an adolescent and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, says that this year, individuals may experience SAD symptoms for the first time, or they may experience severe SAD symptoms, which affect their ability to take care of themselves and loved ones.

So how do you know if your lack of motivation is SAD or just plain old laziness?

Dr. Rock said that the best indicator of having SAD or mild-grade depression is gauging whether your symptoms are unbearable or they interfere with your life. Here are a few ways you can distinguish if it’s SAD or normal laziness:

1. Are you constantly seeing the negative side of life?

Are your Slack notifications more irritating than normal? Finding that you’re more crotchety than usual after scrolling down your Instagram timeline? That type of sadness or “down in the dumps feeling” is relatively common with seasonal blues, Rock says. But, if these thoughts make you eventually want to end it all, it’s time to seek some help. A licensed professional might prescribe some antidepressants if the symptoms turn to a level of severity that can no longer be treated on their own. Behavioral psychotherapy is always a viable option as well. Also, research shows that “lightbox therapy”—sitting in front of a sunlight simulator—may trigger chemical changes in the brain and make you feel better. There are tons of these lights available at affordable prices on Amazon.

2. Waking up later than usual?

The combination of long dark times, warmer home temps and cozier beds can make for a dangerous combination when it comes to your alarm during the week. However, if you find that you’ve gone from an early riser to constantly pressing the snooze button, particularly if you have responsibilities, it may time to take a closer look at what’s going on. An unusually high loss of energy, consistent oversleeping or feeling physically bogged down—are clear symptoms of SAD according to the Mayo Clinic, as referenced earlier. Your limbs may even feel physically heavier than usual.

If this is the case, we suggest utilizing a more soothing type of alarm to wake you in the morning that gently helps you start as opposed to jolting you awake. A fan favorite is the Rise app, which plays soothing sounds that increase in volume the longer you let it play.

3. Eating too much?

Constantly have the munchies even when you’re not hungry? Find yourself mindlessly standing in your refrigerator, willing snacks into fruition for no reason? You’re not alone. The quarantine and colder temps have led most of the world to gain more weight. It was reported in a July 2020 survey conducted by Nutrisystem, 66% of respondents shared they’ve gained up to 16lbs during their time in self-isolation. They also reported that it has been significantly more difficult to lose weight than before the pandemic, and they are willing to try non-traditional weight loss methods.

Additionally, increased appetite is a common side effect that comes along with SAD, specifically carb cravings. The body looks for quick comfort in stressful times, and that often comes in the form of starchy, rich foods. However, looking at this factor alone is not a good enough measure for having SAD. Look for symptoms that interfere with your job, daily activities, or relationships. When this happens, seek some assistance.

For more information on SAD, visit psychiatry.org/SAD