The Impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder on Travel Nurses

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression linked to a change in the seasons. Though it is more prevalent during fall and winter, people can develop SAD in the spring and summer.

This is more than just the “winter blues,” though. Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts your everyday life and what you’re feeling and thinking.

It’s estimated that about 5 percent of U.S. adults experience SAD, with the majority of that group being women. SAD typically emerges during early adulthood, a time when most people are looking to begin new careers.

Travel nursing provides an exciting opportunity to work in different locales, all while meeting the demands of your career field. The change in scenery can be thrilling, but it also presents a unique set of challenges, including the risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Table of Contents


Recognizing SAD

Any type of depression is a serious health crisis that should be treated as soon as possible, which is why it’s important to be aware of the symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The two forms of SAD are Fall-onset and Spring-onset, also known as winter depression and summer depression. The following are symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Winter SAD Symptoms

  • Oversleeping

When the temperatures drop, staying in your cozy bed a little longer may seem like a great idea, but it’s also considered a winter depression symptom. For those who live in northern climates, winter means less exposure to sunlight. Light is one of the principal triggers for your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, and the shift in daylight hours could throw off this internal clock.

Included in this 24-hour cycle is melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that’s released at night to help us doze off. Experts with Cleveland Clinic suggest that minimal sunlight could lead to an increase in melatonin production, leaving you more tired than usual.

  • Craving foods high in carbohydrates

That urge to eat extra carbs could be due to Seasonal Affective Disorder. These types of foods include bread, potatoes, popcorn, soda, and pie. Not all carb-rich foods are bad, but if you’re consistently reaching for the highly processed and refined carbs, this creates an unhealthy diet.

  • Lack of energy

Feeling lethargic is another effect of winter SAD. This could result in less energy to participate in social activities, handle everyday tasks, or exercise.

  • Weight gain

The combination of eating unhealthy carbohydrates and reduced physical activity could lead to weight gain.

Summer SAD Symptoms

  • Insomnia

While winter SAD may result in too much slumber, summer SAD can cause just the opposite. Insomnia is one of the symptoms associated with summer depression.

During this time, the days are much longer, potentially making it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Depending on where you live, the sun may not set until after 9:30 p.m., which could delay melatonin production and leave you feeling less inclined to get some shuteye at your regular bedtime.

  • Poor appetite

A decreased appetite is also linked to SAD during the warmer months.

  • Weight loss

As a result of feeling less hungry, you could experience weight loss as well.

  • Anxiety

Summertime SAD may lead to feelings of anxiety, which is closely linked to insomnia. The warmer weather also means more social engagements, which could trigger anxiousness.

Other SAD Symptoms

The following symptoms are associated with either winter or summer depression.

  • Feeling hopeless

Negative moods that include feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty are linked to SAD.

  • Loss of interest in activities

No longer having a desire to spend time with friends or family is considered a sign of this disorder. For travel nurses who continually get acquainted with new work environments, this could make it more difficult to connect with your coworkers who may want to invite you to social gatherings.

  • Difficulty concentrating

The sleep problems you experience due to SAD could also mean trouble focusing. For healthcare workers, this could drastically affect your job performance, and in some cases, be the difference between life and death.

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

People who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder may have thoughts of death or suicide, which is another reason why this disorder should be addressed. In the event you have these thoughts, seek help immediately.

Causes of SAD for Travel Nurses

Long Hours

Nurses may find themselves regularly working extended shifts, some as long as 12 hours. This could lead to feelings of burnout. A 2019 study found that job dissatisfaction was linked to moderate and severe depression in nurses in Saudi Arabia.

Day Shifts

Working long hours means you’re stuck inside for most of the day without access to sunlight, and the sun provides us with the mood-boosting hormone serotonin. Travel nurses who work in northern states during winter may start and end their shifts while it’s dark and not have the opportunity to go outside during the limited daylight hours. Even during summer, though, being inside all day could lead to negative moods.

Overnight Shifts

Healthcare is a 24-hour job, which means some nurses may find themselves working overnight shifts. This job schedule can be problematic because you’re awake while it’s dark out and must sleep during the daytime, cutting off most — if not all — of your exposure to sunlight.

Sleep Deprivation

Whether they work long daytime hours or overnight, nurses are at risk of not getting enough rest. Furthermore, sleep deprivation is known to worsen symptoms of depression.

High-Stress Work Environment

A career in nursing can be rewarding, but it also presents some highly stressful situations that could fuel depression. For example, nurses working in emergency rooms or intensive care units may deal with traumatic injuries, aggressive patients, and high mortality rates.

Minimal Support

Not every workplace operates the same way, and sometimes nurses find themselves at healthcare facilities that do not foster a collaborative, positive work environment. Not only can this create feelings of isolation, but it could worsen job satisfaction and increase mistakes.

Emotional Toll

Patient care is a worthwhile part of healthcare, and nothing feels better than receiving the gratitude of people whose lives you help saved. However, the emotional toll of working in high-mortality units could severely impact your mental health. Additionally, being assigned too many patients could also contribute to feelings of job resentment and emotional exhaustion.

Travel

Travel nursing offers a wonderful opportunity to work in different places and make new friends. As enjoyable as this is, frequently relocating isn’t without its drawbacks.

Travel nurses are away from family and friends for long periods, which could lead to feeling homesick. It may also take you more time to find friends and a community in your new city, which may cause you to feel lonely and isolated. Furthermore, you’re consistently having to say goodbye to the friends you do eventually meet, which may become emotionally draining.

As mentioned, sleep troubles can exacerbate depression. Not only are travel nurses vulnerable to sleep deprivation from long or irregular work schedules, but the changing time zones can make it even harder to rest well.

Diagnosing SAD

After reviewing the symptoms, you may find yourself wondering if you are subject to Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, this condition should be formally diagnosed by a healthcare professional.

Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder

The good news is that there are many steps you can take to help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Consider Your Location

As a travel nurse, you have the advantage of choosing where you want to work, which means if you’re prone to winter depression, try to take jobs in sunnier, warm destinations during autumn and winter.

Get Outside

For those living and working in colder climates, it’s still important to get outside. Exposure to daylight can help improve your mood. Consider taking up a winter sport or find a nearby park where you can regularly go for walks. 

Exercise

Physical activity is known to help lower stress, which should alleviate the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. While the endorphins you get from hitting the gym are beneficial, winter activities such as ice skating or skiing provide both exercise and time outdoors. Additionally, participating in group workout classes is a chance to connect with others, which could help if you’re feeling lonely.

Brighten Up Your Home

Find ways to invite more sunlight into your home to help lift your spirits and feel more energized. Additionally, you can paint your walls a brighter, calming color and intentionally select decor that brings you joy. For example, if you love flowers, buy your favorite and put them in the places where you spend the most time, such as the kitchen, bedroom, and living room.

Eat Healthy Foods

A healthy diet is also considered a great way to lower your risk of depression while also improving your physical health in the process. Furthermore, the vitamins and nutrients in healthy foods should give you more energy to do other things, such as exercise, that help curb SAD.

Avoid Alcohol and Drugs

Not only can alcohol and drugs negatively affect your sleep, but they are known to worsen depression.

Maintain a Sleep Schedule

SAD and sleep are closely linked. Not only can Seasonal Affective Disorder impair your rest, but insufficient sleep may worsen your depression, creating a problematic cycle. For this reason, it’s essential to try and sleep as best you can.

One of the primary ways to help get quality rest is to establish a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will help get your internal clock on track, minimizing your risk of sleep deprivation or oversleeping. It may be tempting to stay up late or sleep in on your days off, but you should still maintain your sleep schedule on these days too.

Reach Out to Family and Friends

Family and friends can be a significant source of support for those living with SAD. Even if your nursing job takes you far away from your regular support system, a phone call or video chat can remind you that you’re not alone. You should also consider opening up to friends and family specifically about your feelings and symptoms.

Take a Vacation

Sometimes you just need a vacation. Taking a break from a dreary, winter climate to somewhere warm and sunny could certainly help you feel better. Just knowing that you have an upcoming vacation could boost your spirits long before you take off on any flights.

Even if you don’t have the means to travel somewhere far, you can still embark on a weekend road trip or treat yourself to a staycation at a local hotel.

Vitamin D Supplements

The sun is a source of Vitamin D, and with limited daylight during fall and winter, your Vitamin D levels will inevitably drop. According to a 1999 study, Vitamin D supplements could help treat SAD. However, the scientists add that further research is needed.

Stress Management

You may not be able to avoid stressful situations in nursing altogether, but you can develop healthy strategies to mitigate stress and improve your mood. Yoga and meditation have long been considered popular ways to relax. Other ideas include reading, taking a hot bath, painting, or breathing exercises.

Seek Professional Help

You should also consult with a medical doctor or psychologist, particularly if your symptoms worsen or you have thoughts of death or suicide.

  • Light Therapy

For winter depression, a psychologist may recommend light therapy, which involves sitting near a box that mimics natural daylight.

  • Psychotherapy

A psychologist may also attempt a form of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral, which could improve how you view yourself and your environment. Psychotherapy may also be able to help you identify the stressors in your life and manage them.

  • Medications

A doctor may prescribe an antidepressant to help treat your Seasonal Affective Disorder. There are different types of antidepressants to address specific symptoms of depression, and these should only be taken under the direction of your physician.

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