Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression triggered by the change in seasons, primarily winter. More than half a million Americans experience a winter depression but are better come summer.
“It is important to treat SAD, because all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, to enjoy their families, and to function well at work,” said Deborah Pierce, MD, MPH, clinical associate professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Light From a Box Can Provide SAD Therapy
Light therapy boxes give off light that mimics sunshine and can help recovery from seasonal affective disorder. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than regular light bulbs and provides light in different wavelengths. Typically, if you have SAD, you sit in front of a light box for about 30 minutes a day. This will stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms and suppress its natural release of melatonin. Light therapy is most effective in the morning, research shows.
Here Comes the Sun?
Dawn simulators can help some people with seasonal affective disorder. These devices are alarm clocks, but rather than waking you abruptly with loud music or beeping, they produce light that gradually increases in intensity like the sun. Different models of dawn simulators are available, but the best ones use full-spectrum light so that they are the closest to natural sunlight.
Talk With Your Doctor
SAD is a form of depression and is best diagnosed by talking with a mental health professional. “There are a number of screening questions that can help determine if someone is depressed,” said Dr. Pierce. “Your doctor will be able to sort out whether you have seasonal affective disorder as opposed to some other form of depression.” If you have SAD, therapy can help you work through it and get better.
Antidepressants Can Be Part of SAD Therapy
If light therapy or psychotherapy does not boost your mood enough, prescription antidepressants may help you overcome your seasonal depression. Some people find it necessary to take antidepressants only during the winter when they are feeling the blues, but they must do so every winter. It’s important to recognize when the symptoms of SAD start and to see your doctor for a prescription before they escalate.
Get Moving, Feel Better
As with other forms of depression, exercise can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder. Outdoor exercise will be most helpful. However, if you can’t exercise outside because it’s cold or snowy, choose the treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine nearest the window at the gym. Exercise also will help offset the weight gain that is common with seasonal affective disorder.
Let the Sunshine In
If you have seasonal depression or wintertime seasonal affective disorder, you’ll want to get outside as much as you can during the day and take advantage of what sunlight there is. If you live where it is cold, be sure to bundle up, but take a stroll around the block at noon or soon after when the sun is its brightest.
Also, when you’re indoors, keep your blinds open to let as much natural light in as you can.
Stick to a Schedule
Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which helps alleviate seasonal depression. People who live with SAD often have trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. “Keeping a regular schedule will also expose you to light at consistent and predictable times,” Pierce said. Also, if you eat at regular intervals, it will help you watch your diet and not overeat. Many people who live with SAD find they gain weight in the winter.
Follow the Sun
There is no research to support it, but many have found that taking a winter vacation to warmer climes can help people who have seasonal affective disorder. Travel does more than give you a break from your daily routine; it can also help you escape from the cold and overcast skies. It can’t help but lift your spirits — even a few days in sunny places can be helpful with winter depression.
Brighten Up Your Home
If you live with mild seasonal affective disorder, you may want to equip your home with lots of lights. Some people have found that increasing the amount of indoor lighting with regular lamps can help them out of the winter doldrums.
However, those who have severe seasonal affective disorder require exposure to much higher light levels than can be provided by indoor lights and ceiling fixtures, Pierce said. Be sure that you’re not working in a dim environment.