Yes, Seasonal Depression Can Affect Your Relationship
As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, you might notice you feel different. It's not just an off day or pandemic stress—you feel exhausted, unmotivated and sad all the time. What you're experiencing is a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Not only can it affect your own wellbeing, there's also a direct link between seasonal depression and relationships. Since SAD can impact your daily habits (think: sleeping, eating, socializing), it could also influence your interactions with your partner. We spoke to experts to find out exactly how seasonal depression can impact your relationship; plus, we rounded up nine different ways to cope.
Given all that's happened this year—a global pandemic, an overwhelming response to racial injustice, a stressful election, postponed weddings, job insecurity, loss of loved ones—it's completely understandable to be sad. In fact, it's important to acknowledge all of your feelings so that you don't fall into a cycle of toxic positivity. However, if you notice a persistent feeling that's hindering your ability to live your day-to-day life, you're likely experiencing SAD.
Before you take any action, know you're not alone. Millions of American adults suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and many might not even know they have the condition, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Those living in states where there are less hours of daylight in the winter may experience SAD more often. But here's the good news: It's linked to changes in the seasons, which means the symptoms typically aren't permanent. In the meantime, there are ways to treat it.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
"Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of depression that's categorized by significant changes in one's mood or behavior during the changes of season," explains Jordan Madison, licensed clinical marriage and family therapist. "It is defined as 'seasonal' due to the recurrent pattern." SAD is more than just the winter blues—it's an overwhelming condition that impacts your daily life. Although SAD is most common in the fall and winter months, it can also happen when the seasons change in spring and summer.
You can identify seasonal depression based on symptoms you or your partner are experiencing. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression, since it's considered a subtype. Examples include a loss of interest in activities, low energy, difficulty sleeping, feeling hopeless, difficulty concentrating and more. Jean Fitzpatrick, a New York relationship therapist, notes that some people may fidget or pace a lot, while others may have thoughts of death or suicide. If the latter is true for you or your partner, seek professional help immediately or call the emergency hotline at 800-273-8255.
Madison adds there's a slight difference in symptoms between winter-pattern and summer-pattern SAD. "In the winter, it's more common to see isolation from others, overeating, oversleeping, and weight gain," she says. "In the summer, it is more likely to feel restless, anxious, have trouble sleeping, episodes of violent behavior, or a lack of appetite."
How Seasonal Affective Disorder Can Impact To-Be-Weds
There's a direct connection between seasonal depression and relationships because it negatively impacts communication, physical bonding and other daily habits formed with your partner. "Seasonal affective disorder can impact our relationships because it's difficult to connect when you aren't feeling your best," explains Yunetta Smith, licensed professional counselor-mental health service provider.
One key example of that is communication between partners. "Communication may dwindle or become turbulent, as some people may want to isolate themselves, are preoccupied with negative thought patterns, or become easily irritated," explains Brittney Cobb, licensed therapist and licensed clinical social worker. SAD can also impact your ability to focus and concentrate, which can cause serious communication issues for couples quarantining together. Madison adds that those experiencing seasonal depression may have trouble articulating their feelings to their S.O., which can lead to even more frustration between partners.
The lack of communication isn't the only potential side effect of SAD for couples. According to experts, the physical side of your relationship could be impacted too. "If you're experiencing loss of pleasure or loss of interest in activities, that can make date nights or the sexual side of the relationship difficult to keep up as well," Madison says.
And while those struggling with SAD experience a sense of hopelessness, their partners do too. "It can be hard for partners to see their loved one in a down mood all the time, and feel like they are not able to help," Madison says. For example, if they're continually trying to cheer their partner up to no avail, that can feel discouraged. Fitzpatrick says partners may start to distance themselves from those experiencing SAD to avoid getting dragged down by the negativity. In the same vein, Smith says the social withdrawal and isolation can cause partners to worry about the status of their relationship.
If you're experiencing these challenges as a couple, you're not alone. Despite the current turbulence you're facing, there are several ways to treat seasonal depression and mend your relationship. Your love story doesn't have to be defined by this condition. In fact, it can grow stronger as you support each other through this difficult season.
How to Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder
Noticing symptoms and changes in your relationships is the most important step you can take in treating SAD. "In order to cope, we must first know what we are coping with," Smith says. "It's important for individuals to know that seasonal affective disorder exists, and understanding the symptoms can help couples to know that they're not alone." Plus, knowing that SAD is actually quite common may offer couples hope knowing that it's treatable.
Seek Professional Help
Remember: seasonal affective disorder isn't just the winter blues. It's a real mental health condition that requires treatment. The first thing you should do is create a "treatment team," says Dr. Allycin Powell-Hicks, a mental health and relationship expert with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. "This includes therapists, medical doctors, psychiatrists or social workers. Building a team will help support your partner and yourself if things get difficult."
Fitapatrick recommends scheduling a physical exam to make sure the symptoms aren't being caused by a medical condition. Then, work together to set up therapy so you can begin healing. Consider individual talk therapy or couples therapy if it's accessible to you—or join a support group. If you're having suicidal thoughts, call your doctor or go to your nearest emergency department right away.
Soak Up the Sun
We know—sunshine in the winter? It may sound impossible, but any extra sunlight you can get helps. "Get as much natural sunlight as possible, whether it's stepping outside during the day, opening the blinds in your home at office at work or getting some time outside before the sun goes down," Cobb says. "Sunlight helps increase serotonin in the brain, which contributes to improving your mood." Another idea? Try waking up an hour earlier and take a long, leisurely walk around the block with your partner (don't forget to bring a warm cup of coffee).
Try Light Therapy
As the days get shorter, getting natural sunlight exposure is more difficult. That's where light therapy helps. By sitting next to an artificial light, you can mimic the effects of natural sunlights and help elevate your body's feel-good hormones. It's a clinically-proven way to help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression.
Consult a Professional About Medication
Individuals with seasonal depression may benefit from adding extra medication into their daily lineup. For some, a vitamin D supplement could make all the difference. For others, an antidepressant will help curb feelings of hopelessness and allow you to heal your relationship with your partner. Consult a professional to see if taking medication could help your SAD.
Establish a Health-Focused Routine
One major side effect of seasonal affective disorder is a loss of daily routine. Those struggling with the condition may be getting less sleep, working out less, and eating less nutritiously. All of these things can actually worsen SAD since you're not taking care of your body. Work with your partner to create a routine to help get back on track.
Fitzpatrick recommends offering to be a workout buddy for your partner and planning balanced, nourishing meals for the two of you. She also suggests setting alarms for bedtime and waking up at the same time each day. "[Someone experiencing SAD] won't necessarily feel like doing any of these things, but sometimes doing the opposite of what you feel can help you feel much better," she says.
Avoiding isolation seems nearly impossible amid COVID (especially as social distancing orders rise). But if this year has taught us anything, it's that we can connect in many different ways. Fitzpatrick recommends calling friends or family, scheduling Facetime dates with loved ones or setting up group Zoom calls. Since it's likely just the two of you quarantining together, use the opportunity to get creative and find fun activities to do. "Maybe it's bundling up and having a bonfire, going for a walk to get some fresh air, or having a creative date night in the house like paint and sips or candle making," Madison says. Minimizing time alone can help relieve symptoms of seasonal depression; plus, the creative date nights will bring you even closer.
Maintain Some Level of Intimacy
Experts agree that couples' sexual activity typically drops off if one person is experiencing seasonal affective disorder. Still, Cobb says it's important to keep the spark alive, even if it doesn't involve physical acts. "It could be doing a fun activity at home, playing games together, or finding ways to support your partner's love language," she says. "If they enjoy physical touch, hold their hand on the couch or give them a massage. If they love words of affirmation, write them a letter." These small, simple acts can help you feel closer to each other even if your sexual activity has declined.
It can be difficult to watch someone you love suffer. But even if you try to help, your partner may not respond. Remind yourself it's nothing personal. Fitzpatrick says it's important to understand your partner can't just "snap out of it." Healing takes time and energy, so do your best to support your partner through this process. Have patience, practice empathy and listen to their emotions. "Find a balance between helping to engage them in activities that cheer them up, but also give them space to feel their emotions," Madison says. Work on not seeing your partner as a project to 'fix.'"
It's all about balance, Powell-Hicks says. "You can still hold your partner accountable for unkind words but attempt to see their perspective and think back to when you didn't feel physically or emotionally well," she explains. "Were you really eager to put away groceries or take out the trash? Probably not. Empathize—they don't feel well. "
Externalize Your Challenges
This winter is different from any other winters we've seen before. "There are multiple levels of suffering, so make sure you're working your hardest to lift suffering rather than cause it," says Powell-Hicks.
It's important to acknowledge all that you're going through right now to alleviate pressure on your relationship, Madison says. Externalizing your challenges by framing them within the context of what's happening in the world is an effective way to take the pressure off you and your partner. "Added pressures of lockdown, quarantine and not being able to be surrounded by family and friends the way that we're used to can put extra demands and restrictions on the relationship," Madison explains. "When you're able to see the problems that you are facing as caused by an external factor, instead of blaming your partner or yourself, it can be easier to look for solutions together."
Take a step back and look at the big picture. You've already overcome so much this winter. If seasonal affective disorder is impacting your relationship, create a treatment plan and lean on each other. Things are hard right now, but it won't always feel like this.