How’s your mental health during winter? How about during the summer? Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a depressive condition associated with seasonal changes and affects people during all times of the year. SAD can significantly influence your daily life and emotional state — especially if you’re a traveling healthcare worker.
According to Mental Health America, about 5% of adults in the U.S. experience SAD every year, with women making up the majority. The main age of onset of seasonal depression is between 20 and 30, however, symptoms can appear earlier.
Being a healthcare traveler means you can take assignments in new places every few weeks. This means you’re on the road quite a bit, putting you at a higher risk of SAD. Let’s dive in to learn:
- The SAD symptoms based on the season
- The causes of SAD for healthcare travelers
- How healthcare travelers can combat SAD
SAD symptoms based on the season
SAD can manifest in two distinct types — winter depression and summer depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are the different symptoms based on the season:
Winter SAD symptoms
For healthcare travelers, symptoms of winter seasonal affective disorder can manifest in a few ways. There may be a noticeable drop in energy, a growing need for isolation, or an increased craving for carbohydrates, all of which are signs that SAD has taken hold. Here are other symptoms to look out for:
Oversleeping or lack of energy
During winter, the idea of staying longer in your comfortable, warm bed may appear appealing. However, it’s also considered a symptom of winter depression. In northern states, you may see less sunlight during winter, which affects your body's natural sleep-wake cycle. This disruption can impact the production of melatonin, resulting in increased fatigue. Feeling lethargic is another symptom and it can lead to a decline in motivation, making it challenging to do daily activities like exercise or go to work.
Craving foods high in carbs or weight gain
Do you tend to crave more carbs in the winter? This may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder. These food choices can include bread, potatoes, popcorn, soda, and pie. While not all carbohydrate-rich foods are unhealthy, relying heavily on processed and refined carbs can lead to an imbalanced diet. This paired with reduced physical activity can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Summer SAD symptoms
Symptoms of summer SAD may show up differently for healthcare travelers. Irritability, anxiety, and insomnia can become issues, often triggered by high temperatures during the summer. These symptoms of SAD can be just as challenging as the winter. Here are other symptoms to be aware of:
During summer SAD, the opposite of excessive sleep can occur — insomnia. This is a sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. The long summer days can make it challenging to fall asleep. In certain locations, the sun may not set until after 9:30 p.m., potentially delaying the production of melatonin and reducing your inclination to sleep at your usual bedtime.
Summertime SAD can lead to feelings of anxiety, which are closely interconnected with insomnia. The increase in social activities during warmer weather can also trigger feelings of anxiousness.
Reduced appetite or weight loss
SAD during the summer months can also result in a diminished desire to eat because of the increasing heat and humidity. From there, a decreased appetite can lead to unhealthy weight loss.
Causes of seasonal affective disorder for healthcare travelers
As a healthcare traveler, your job is to take care of others. However, sometimes this can lead to SAD for a few reasons:
Frequent changes in routine
As a healthcare traveler, you’re frequently traveling and changing up your routine. Sometimes, this irregularity in a schedule and constant moves from one state to another can disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, leading to a higher risk of developing SAD. Beyond that, the lack of familiarity with new environments may lead to feelings of isolation, which is a common symptom of SAD. It’s important to prioritize self-care, maintain consistent sleep patterns, and seek support from colleagues and loved ones to overcome travel-related challenges.
High-stress work environment
As a healthcare worker, you know you can work in a high-stress work environment. This alone can contribute to the development of SAD for healthcare travelers. The demanding nature of your work can create a heightened risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, and burnout. The combination of stress and the absence of loved ones during travel can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Lack of sleep can also lead to the development of SAD in healthcare travelers. People with SAD can experience excessive sleepiness during the day and longer periods of sleep at night. The disruption of sleep patterns due to high-stress environments can increase the risk of SAD for healthcare travelers, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing adequate rest and maintaining a healthy sleep routine.
Switching day and night shifts
Have you switched from day to night shifts or vice versa? These changes may be causing more harm. Alternating work schedules can disrupt your circadian rhythm which can lead to SAD. Sleep irregularity and exposure to artificial light during “night” hours can also lead to depression and anxiety. Shift rotations are sometimes necessary to take on as a healthcare traveler, but make sure to check in on your mental health occasionally.
Working long hours in healthcare can contribute to the development of seasonal affective disorder for travelers. The demanding nature of their profession, coupled with extended shifts and irregular work schedules, can lead to chronic fatigue and heightened stress levels. The lack of time for self-care and relaxation, combined with the challenges of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, can increase the risk of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety among healthcare travelers.
How healthcare travelers can combat SAD
If you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder by a professional or if you believe you may have it, that’s okay! There are ways to combat it, even while on the road:
Choose the right location for assignments
Healthcare travelers can combat SAD by strategically choosing their winter and summer travel assignments. By choosing places that offer better weather conditions and ample sunlight, you can increase your exposure to natural light, which plays a crucial role in mitigating the symptoms of SAD. Also choosing places that align with personal preferences and bring joy can contribute to overall well-being and help combat seasonal depression.
Brighten up your space
Healthcare travelers can combat seasonal affective disorder by brightening up their living space, even with limited belongings. They can prioritize bringing items that bring them joy, such as photographs, artwork, or comforting decor, to create a positive and uplifting environment. By rearranging furniture and opening curtains to maximize natural light, healthcare travelers can enhance their living space's brightness and create a more vibrant atmosphere to combat the symptoms of SAD.
Maintain a sleep schedule
Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is crucial for healthcare travelers to combat SAD. By prioritizing sleep, you can improve the quality and duration of their sleep, which plays a significant role in managing SAD symptoms. For those working night shifts, implementing strategies such as creating a dark and quiet sleep environment with blackout curtains, avoiding caffeine before bed, and establishing a pre-sleep routine can help promote better sleep and mitigate the effects of SAD.
Lean on your support system
Support systems are so important to have in the battle against SAD. Scheduling weekly video calls with loved ones can provide a sense of connection and camaraderie, which is essential for mental health. You can send postcards or letters to friends and family back home, and even become friends with your coworkers to create a supportive environment in the facility.
Take time off between assignments
How much time do you take off between assignments? Taking time off between contracts is recommended for healthcare travelers battling seasonal affective disorder. This time can be used to explore the state you’re leaving or the one you’re going to, to visit friends and family back home or in neighboring states, or simply rest and rejuvenate, all of which can help manage SAD symptoms.
Long story short is that you as a healthcare traveler have the power to combat seasonal affective disorder. The strategies are within reach: maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, leaning on a robust support system, and taking well-deserved time off between contracts. You got this!