Seasonal Affective Disorder

Posted by Meg Stump, L.M.F.T.
January 20, 2014

Meg Stump LMFTDo you feel depressed during the winter months? You shouldn’t dismiss that annual feeling as a case of the “winter blues” or a seasonal funk that you have to deal with on your own. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that happens at the same time every year. It’s caused by a reduced amount of sunlight that affects the natural chemicals in your body that determine mood and energy.

In order to be diagnosed with SAD, you should experience symptoms at the same time of the year for at least two consecutive years. Symptoms usually start in the fall and continue through the winter months and can include: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Lack of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Appetite changes

Rather than moving south to the equator, where sunlight is always plentiful, the most common ways to treat SAD are:

  1. Medication. Certain medications can help with SAD, especially if the symptoms are severe. Your health care provider may recommend you begin taking antidepressants before your symptoms typically begin and for a period of time after the winter season ends. You may have to try several different medications before finding the one that helps you best with the least amount of side effects.
  2. Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is another option for anyone with SAD. Speaking with a professional counselor can help you identify problems and provide solutions. You can learn healthy ways to cope with SAD and manage stress in your life.
  3. Light therapy. Also called phototherapy, light therapy is a treatment for SAD. Special light therapy boxes are used to expose your body to the light it requires. These broad-spectrum lights mimic outdoor light and affect the brain chemicals associated with mood.
  4. Alternative therapies. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation and massage may also help alleviate some of the symptoms of SAD, especially when used in conjunction with other treatments.

There’s no known way to prevent SAD, but there are some things you can do in your life that may help. Try the following:

  • Make your environment sunnier and brighter. Open the blinds and allow more sunlight into your home. Sit near a window while at work or at home.
  • Get outside. If it’s not too cold out, take a walk outside during your lunch hour when the sun is at its peak.
  • Be physically active. Exercise helps relieve stress and anxiety. Being more active helps your body’s physical and mental health. Looking and feeling fit also can make you feel better about yourself, which can improve your mood.
  • Be social. Interacting with others can help you deal with depression. The last thing you want to do is isolate yourself. Talk to a family member, a friend or a religious leader. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on or a positive conversation to cheer you up.
  • Take care of your body and mind. Eat regular, healthy meals and avoid drugs and alcohol, which will only make your depression worse.

If you’re feeling depressed this winter, talk to your health care provider about the options you have to improve your quality of life.

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