To most of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the time of year when the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the weather colder. For many of us those cloudy, chilly days are more than just an inconvenience or a reminder to winterize our house.
Like Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is more than just feeling a little down, or having a bad day or two. How do you know if you have SAD? The symptoms of SAD are similar to depression:
- Feeling sad or down most of the day, several days a week
- Diminished interest or pleasure things you used to enjoy, even life itself
- Weight loss or weight gain due to loss of appetite, or eating a ton of comfort foods
- Insomnia or excessive sleep, and when you do sleep not waking up feeling refreshed
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt most days
What makes SAD different is that these symptoms primarily manifest during the fall or winter months, and tend to disappear in the spring. If you’ve noticed this and you’ve noticed this cycle for at least the past two years you may be diagnosable with SAD. Younger people are at greater risk for SAD than middle-aged or older folks. If you’ve noticed these symptoms, go see your doctor or a therapist and let him/her know. These symptoms may or may not be SAD, but either way it’s often best to find someone qualified to diagnose you.
What can you do to help yourself? I have four suggestions:
1. Get outside!
One of the best things you can do it go outside when natural light is the brightest. Even if it’s a cloudy day your skin will still receive sunlight and transform it into vitamin D. In addition we tend to be more active when we are outside than when inside. Even better go outside with other people, so you get a social benefit as well. I have been told by multiple doctors that those of us who live above 42 degrees North Latitude (roughly the Oregon/California border) ought to make special effort to be outside as the rays of the sun are less direct all year round, and to supplement in the winter with Vitamin D.
2. Eat well!
As I’ve noted in previous posts, eating healthy doesn’t just keep you alive, it can also have a profound impact on your mood. Your body and your brain need the proper nutrients to stay strong and healthy, and perform their proper functions. Be sure to include fruit and vegetables in at least one meal per day. Stay away from excessive carbs. Set yourself a limit on how much to have, and let loved ones know about it so they can help keep you accountable on days when you want to stuff yourself.
Exercise is one of the most important things anyone can do to maintain their physical and mental health. If you’re the type to go to the gym, then keep going, even on days you don’t want to. Doing a little exercise is much better than doing none. If you’d rather go for a walk, a jog, a hike, swim, do yoga, etc., then set a schedule and stick to it. You’ll feel better at the end, no matter how you feel at the beginning. Again, it’s even better to find an activity partner to do things with.
4. See your doctor about light therapy.
Light therapy is a scientifically validated way to fight SAD. Light therapy has been shown to boost your body’s level of serotonin (a “feel good” chemical in the brain) and decrease production of melatonin, a hormone related to our sleep cycle. Lights for light therapy are easy to find on Amazon and elsewhere, but see your doctor first to see if it is right for you and get their advice on how to use it. You should be in their office anyway telling them that you suspect you might have SAD, and ruling out any physical or biological causes of your sadness.
None of these suggestions are magic, and none of them will necessarily be easy for someone suffering from SAD. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it! If you’d like an additional self-help resource, the book Winter Blues by Rosenthal is a well-regarded resource to try.
If you notice that you just can’t seem to get out of bed, take a shower, brush your teeth etc., or if you find yourself having suicidal thoughts, you need to take immediate steps. In addition to the steps above talk to your doctor about antidepressants and find a qualified mental health professional like myself.
SAD is manageable and if you get proactive you will be able to noticeably reduce your symptoms, perhaps even eliminate them. Don’t procrastinate, do something now so this winter will be a happier one.