Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depressive disorder in which sufferers experience depressive symptoms brought on by the change of seasons. While it’s possible for SAD symptoms to appear in the summer, it’s more common for people with the disorder to experience depressive symptoms during the winter.
If you suffer from wintertime SAD, you probably begin to notice the onset of depressive symptoms in early to late autumn. Symptoms may last until early to late spring. Some people with SAD experience mostly physical symptoms and don’t notice a severe change in mood, while others struggle with irritability, loss of interest in things they once enjoyed, insomnia or fatigue and overwhelming feelings of sadness. Either way, the symptoms of SAD are typically bad enough to interfere with a sufferer’s professional and social functioning.
Fortunately, SAD is considered a very treatable mental illness. Medication, lifestyle changes, light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can all be very effective for relieving SAD symptoms. If you suffer from depressive symptoms during the winter months, a psychiatrist or psychologist can help you determine if your symptoms constitute SAD and help you come up with a treatment plan.
Spend Time Outside in the Morning
Scientists think that there’s a link between wintertime SAD and the production of melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep. When it’s dark out, your body produces more melatonin, which makes your body temperature drop and makes you feel sleepy. Your body produces more melatonin during the winter months, when the days are short. Exposing yourself to natural light early in the morning can help slow your body’s production of melatonin and counteract its effects, to help increase your energy levels and relieve your depressive symptoms.
You should try to get as much natural light as possible between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Open the shades as soon as you get up. If you can’t get outside, sit by a window. Make time to get outdoors during your lunch break so you can get some sun.
Psychiatrists and psychologists treat SAD symptoms using medication, light therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). You can take medication like Wellbutrin to relieve your SAD symptoms. Many people also experience great improvement in their symptoms by using a light therapy device.
Light therapy devices emit light specially designed to have the same effect on the body as sunlight. These lamps are about 10 times as bright as indoor light, and may produce between 2,500 and 10,000 lux. In order to maximize the effects of light therapy, you have to perform it every day during the colder months. The best time to use these lamps is in the morning. You will need to sit facing the lamp, with your eyes open, for 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the strength of your lamp. You can eat, read, talk on the phone or do other activities as long as you’re facing the lamp the entire time.
CBT is also considered effective for SAD symptoms. CBT for SAD involves challenging your negative ideas about winter and helping you come up with a plan for having fun in spite of the cold weather and your feelings of depression and sluggishness.
Aerobic exercise has been found to be effective in the treatment of other forms of depression, and SAD is no exception. Plus, it’s a good way to get outside in the early morning. If you can’t exercise outside, try to exercise in a sunny room or near a window. Some good exercises to try include jogging, swimming, or biking, but even getting outside for a walk can boost your energy and help you shake off the blues.
Many people with SAD find that a craving for carbohydrates accompanies their symptoms. Resist the urge to snack on sweets and bread. Instead, try eating foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid that your body needs to produce serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter. These foods include egg whites, turkey and milk.
It’s also a good idea to eat foods that help stabilize your blood sugar, since dramatic blood sugar swings can contribute to weight gain and affect your mood. Eat whole grains and fruits like apples, plums, pears, apricots, oranges, and grapes. When you feel a carbohydrate carving, drink a cup of hot broth instead.
Take a Trip
If you can afford to take a winter holiday to the tropics, you should. Many people with SAD feel a complete remission of their symptoms within a few days of traveling to a warmer climate. Some people feel so much better when they travel closer to the Equator that they decide to pack up and move there permanently.
SAD symptoms can make you feel sluggish, moody, irritable and depressed all winter long, if you let them. A combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes can help you beat the winter blues, and keep you smiling until the snow melts.