8 Tips to Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as “The Winter Blues” or “Winter Depression,” is a type of depression that affects over 10 million Americans each year. And research has shown that 10 percent to 20 percent of folks may struggle with a milder form of SAD.

SAD is a depression that occurs based on seasons; symptoms for the Winter variant begin in the Fall and dissipate by Spring. Women are impacted more than men, and the condition typically begins around 20. SAD symptoms include: weight gain, oversleeping, having an increased craving for carbohydrates, irritability, having an increased sensitivity for rejection, sadness, anxiety, fatigue/low energy, having an overall sense of heaviness in the arms and legs, oversleeping and lethargy.

Here are 6 tips to consider if you or a loved one is currently struggling with the winter blues:

Consider using a lightbox or light lamp.  Decreased exposure to sunlight and changes in one’s biological clock and changes in Serotonin levels (a neurochemical in the brain associated with mood) are believed to be the main two causes of SAD. Thus, exposure to light is the go-to intervention for the treatment of SAD. Phototherapy or bright light therapy mimics natural sunlight and has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin, and many people respond to the treatment. The device is easy to use, and many report reduced depression symptoms within days to weeks.  For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors or arranging one’s home and workplace during the day to receive more sunlight may be enough to make a difference.  One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright light.

Get a check-up.  The Winter months are a great time for an annual physical or wellness check-up with your general practitioner, and getting a routine complete blood count (CBC) will serve to identify any possible factors that are contributing to a sad or depressed mood – e.g., thyroid imbalance, low vitamin D or iron, etc.

Consider exercise.  Exercise is probably the last thing one wants to do if depressed, however, research has shown that physical activity can help with anxiety and improve mood. An exercise plan should always be reasonable and attainable, especially if one is depressed. So, instead of a gym membership to start, perhaps starting out with a project in the house, running errands or going for a walk around the block is the way to go. Establishing an exercise routine and sticking to it is what is most important for getting oneself moving and more active.

Be mindful of what you consume.  Most people with depression crave carbohydrates because these foods are comforting and they convert into higher Serotonin levels.  But while cookies, brownies, pasta, etc., may initially serve to comfort, that comfort is fleeting.  Ultimately, eating large amounts of carbohydrates could lead to weight gain and an increased feeling of badness. Refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol are also linked to mood and should be consumed with care and in moderation.

Consider medication and therapy.  Research studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of antidepressant medication and psychotherapy in the treatment of depression. More specifically, studies have found that antidepressant medication can be very effective for the treatment of severe depression, and several other studies have shown great success with the combined treatment of medication and psychotherapy together for moderate to severe depression. Numerous other studies have shown that psychotherapy alone, specifically cognitive-behavior therapy, can be very successful in reducing symptoms of depression.

Be social.  Staying connected with important others is also important when depressed. Most depressed individuals prefer to be left alone since it is often challenging and painful to openly discuss negative emotions and thoughts. But remaining disconnected from others while depressed could potentially hamper improvement and even worsen symptoms.

Get enough sleep.  Addressing sleep problems is essential for the recovery of depression.  Avoiding naps, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, limiting or avoiding caffeine and sugar, and getting some form of exercise every day should altogether help to normalize sleep problems associated with depression.

Stay on top of the changes you’d like to make.  Keeping an accurate log of your mood, energy, eating and sleeping habits over time will also be helpful for determining whether any changes are in fact seasonal.

So, remember that small things like a walk on a sunny winter day, getting enough sleep and eating healthily can be a boost both physically and mentally.  Here’s to prioritizing your mental health, and here’s to a great Fall and Winter in Northern Virginia!

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Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn