If shifts in weather or generally shorter days zap your energy and make you feel blue, you’ve got classic symptoms of a seasonal affective disorder. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression triggered by the change in seasons that occurs primarily in the colder seasons, or winter “blues” as famously referred to.
Why do some people get SAD? According to experts, seasonal changes disrupt the circadian rhythm: the 24-hour clock that regulates how we function during sleeping and waking hours, causing us to feel energized and alert sometimes and drowsy at other times.
Another theory is that the changing seasons disrupt hormones such as serotonin and melatonin, which regulate sleep, mood, and feelings of well-being. Women and young people are more likely to experience SAD, as are those who live farther away from the equator. People with a family history or diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder may also be particularly susceptible.
It is important to treat SAD because all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, enjoy their families, and function well at work. Here are a few SAD treatment options you might want to consider.
Start with simple changes.
Many forms of depression benefit from changes to sleep schedule, a nutritious diet, exercise and social interaction. If you have S.A.D., put a winter spin on these behaviors.
For example, even if you want to sleep later, set an alarm each day so you can experience early-morning sunshine, which helps with S.A.D. symptoms. What you do at night matters, too. Basic sleep hygiene like avoiding screens (and any artificial light) helps too. Try to keep your bedtime consistent — not too late — and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol, which can interfere with your quality of rest and ability to get up.
Try a lightbox
Light therapy boxes give off light that mimics sunshine and can help in the recovery from the seasonal affective disorder. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than that of regular light bulbs, and it’s provided in different wavelengths.
Typically, if you have SAD, you sit in front of a lightbox for about 30 minutes a day. This will stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms and suppress its natural release of melatonin. Most people find light therapy to be most effective if used when they first get up in the morning. One week of light therapy may be as effective as two, though most people continue light therapy throughout the entire season that they’re affected.
Natural light isn’t only cheaper than a lightbox, it’s also brighter. Aim to go outside within 30 minutes after sunrise. Duration depends on where you live and the weather.
Also, when you’re indoors, keep your blinds open to let as much natural light in as you can. You want to be in bright environments whenever possible
Proactive is the way to go.
As it does with other forms of depression, exercise can help alleviate seasonal affective disorder, too. Outdoor exercise would be most helpful. But if you can’t exercise outside because it’s cold, choose a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine close to a window at the gym.
Treat SAD like the depression it is – with diet, exercise, and the help of a professional.
Exercise can also help offset the weight gain that is common with seasonal affective disorder.
Aromatherapy may also help those with the seasonal disorder. The essential oils can influence the area of the brain that’s responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock that influences sleep and appetite.
You can add a few drops of essential oils to your bath at night to help you relax.
Stick to a Schedule
People who live with SAD often have trouble sleeping at night and getting up in the morning. Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which can help alleviate symptoms of seasonal depression.
Keeping a regular schedule will also expose you to light at consistent and predictable times. And eating at regular intervals can help you watch your diet and not overeat. Many people who live with SAD find they gain weight in the cold season.
Keep a Journal
Writing down your thoughts can have a positive effect on your mood. It can help you get some of your negative feelings out of your system.
Plan to write for about 20 minutes on most days of the week – including your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. The best time is at night so that you can reflect on all that happened in the last 24 hours.