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How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

How to Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Are shorter days and colder weather draining your energy and giving you the blues? You may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a common type of depression triggered by the changes in daylight and weather that we experience in the winter.

What Causes SAD?

Less sunlight and shorter days are thought to be linked to chemical changes in the brain and may be part of the reason people experience SAD. Less exposure to sunlight increases melatonin, which can cause fatigue, and decreases serotonin, which is responsible for boosting good moods. Seasonal changes may also disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, or 24-hour inner clock, which regulates how we function during sleeping and waking hours. Plus, being stuck inside without sunlight or fresh air and being forced to become more sedentary can certainly make you feel sluggish or depressed.

About 4 to 6 percent of people in the United States experience symptoms of SAD, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Women and young people are more likely to experience SAD, as well as those who live in colder climates.

Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Experiencing feelings of depression that happen most of the day during the winter months
  • Being tired or having low energy
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Having appetite changes or weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping excessively

How to Cope with SAD

If you start to feel that familiar decrease in energy and flood of low moods creep up on you as winter closes in, there are many effective ways to battle SAD symptoms.

See a Doctor

Because SAD is a form of depression, it needs to be diagnosed by a mental health professional. Your doctor can give you a mental health screening to determine if your symptoms fit a SAD diagnosis rather than a different type of depression.

If you do have SAD, professional treatment can help. Counseling can help you develop effective coping methods for your symptoms, or your doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help you find relief from SAD.

Try Light Therapy

Bright light therapy refers to exposure to artificial light, which helps keep your circadian rhythm on track during the winter months. Light therapy boxes, also known as phototherapy boxes, are devices that emit light that mimics the effects of sunshine, which can help reduce symptoms of SAD.

Sitting in front of the light box for about 20 to 30 minutes a day, particularly when you wake up in the morning, can alter your brain chemicals to boost your mood-enhancing hormones, give you energy, and help alleviate depression.

Stay Social

Besides the biological shifts that winter causes in your body, increased isolation during the frigid winter months also has a huge effect on your mental well-being. Many people tend to withdraw during the winter, staying inside and avoiding social contact. Making an effort to reach out to friends and family in the winter is important to minimize feelings of loneliness. Even if treacherous winter weather is preventing you from visiting your loved ones or meeting up for dinner, keeping consistent with phone calls or FaceTime sessions can help you feel less closed off.

Get Moving

Many people find themselves becoming increasingly inactive during the winter. The bleak weather and minimal hours of sunlight make it easy to put off the gym and instead curl up on the couch. However, exercise is a great way to combat depression, boost energy, and improve your overall wellness. On warmer days, a brisk outdoor run or jog will significantly improve SAD symptoms. If you are more comfortable sticking to an indoor workout, using a treadmill or exercise equipment near your gym’s window is also effective.

On days when the cold or snow is making a trip to the gym too daunting, a home workout or yoga routine can get your blood flowing. There are many helpful videos available online for simple exercises you can easily do in the comfort and warmth of your own home.

Soak Up the Sun

Try to get outside as much as you can during the day in winter to make the most out of the available sunlight. Even on very cold days – simply bundle up and take a quick jaunt around the block midday, which is when the sun is the strongest and it will be the warmest.

Even when you’re indoors, sun exposure can help. Keep your blinds and curtains open to flood your home or office with bright natural light.

Get Enough Vitamin D

Many people are deficient in vitamin D all year-round, and levels will only decrease in the winter. Low vitamin D is a major contributor to many health ills, including depression. You can improve your vitamin D levels by taking supplements or adding more vitamin D–rich foods to your diet, such as salmon, tuna, egg yolks, and mushrooms. If your deficiency is severe enough, your doctor may recommend a prescription supplement – schedule a blood panel to determine whether or not your levels are low.

LiveWell Counseling for SAD

If you are having trouble coping with possible symptoms of SAD, we can help. At Christian Health’s LiveWell Counseling center, you can work one-on-one with a therapist to improve your symptoms and return to mental wellness. For more information, please call (201) 848-5800.