Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

This has been an incredibly mild winter here in the DC metro area.  I felt the effect myself over this past unusually warm weekend.   Exercising outside at the park, abundant sunshine, and more time socializing with friends and neighbors seemed to have everyone in a better mood.  That being said, we still have more frigid days in our future.  For many people dark and short days, limited sunshine and more time stuck indoors can create a case of the “winter blues”.  For others, the changing seasons can prompt a more serious condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD is a form of depression that is directly linked to the changing seasons.  It includes symptoms of sadness and depression combined with lack of motivation and increased sleeping and eating.  Researchers aren’t sure as to the exact cause of SAD although lack of light is thought to affect melatonin and serotonin brain activity which in turn affects mood.  Here are some tips for managing this frustrating annual condition:

Get Moving: Exercise is always an important component of managing depression, but it is particularly helpful when suffering from SAD.  If you are experiencing low energy and a sad mood, then a trip to the gym is a wise investment in your mental health.  If you are someone who prefers to exercise outside this can contribute to a seasonal drop in mood.  Although you may prefer a jog outside to a work out on the treadmill in your basement, you must make exercise a priority if your mood and energy have dropped.

See the Light: Light therapy involves exposure to a light box which simulates sunshine and has been found to reduce symptoms of SAD.  Light boxes are typically most effective when used first thing in the morning for a minimum of 30 minutes.  Cost for light boxes can range greatly but the best way to make sure you spend your money wisely is to invest in one that shines at least 10,000 lux.  This is the level of brightness that has been proven to reduce the symptoms of SAD with the most efficient use of time.   Experiment with time of day and duration of exposure to find the equation that works best for you.  Jot down the time you spend in front of the light and your corresponding mood and energy level later in the day.

Take Advantage:  If you are suffering from seasonal depression it is imperative to make the most out of those rare sunny days or times when the temperature creeps above frigid.  A mild winter day is not just a stroke up good luck but an opportunity to get some rays and improve a low mood.  Bundle up and get outside whenever you can.  The more you get outside in the cold the more you will be able to cope with the effects of a long winter season.

Make the Best of it:  Part of learning to thrive during winter months involves learning to find what you love about the season.  Think creatively about how to develop new winter habits and hobbies that you can get excited about.  Consider taking up a winter sport and find a way to get a new form of winter exercise.  Find different ways to be productive indoors as well.  Learn to find joy in books or arts and crafts or maybe just organizing your closet.  Also be sure to continue to schedule social engagements as much as possible.  It may be harder to get motivated to meet up with friends and family when conditions outside aren’t ideal but as humans we benefit from social engagement.  Enjoyable relationships protect us from depression and should be made a priority in every season.

If none of these efforts relieve your seasonal depression, consider seeing your doctor.  There are antidepressants available which are specifically designed for SAD symptoms.  Living in a climate with a long winter season can be hard on many people; if you suffer from SAD, it can sometimes seem unbearable.  With effort and proper treatment, your symptoms can become more manageable, and you can look forward to the early signs of Spring.

-Posted by Jonah Green and Associates | Therapist – Kensington, Maryland

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