For many people, the gray days of winter can mean gray moods. If you feel sad, can’t sleep and feel as if all you want to do is lie on the sofa, eat bad food and watch cable for days on end, you might have seasonal affective disorder.
SAD is a form of depression that generally happens in the late fall, when there is less natural sunlight and the days become shorter and colder. It has been estimated that as many as 9 percent of U.S. adults – about a half-million people – experience symptoms of SAD.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Feelings of sadness or a serious mood shift when the seasons change
- Lack of energy
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities (including loss of sexual interest)
- Difficulty with sleep (either by sleeping too much or experiencing insomnia)
Three-quarters of SAD sufferers are women and it’s more commonly seen in cloudy parts of the country or areas farther to the north or south of the equator. Seasonal affective disorder typically worsens in the winter.
Here are three ways you can combat SAD:
1. Try an exercise program
Most people naturally decrease their activity in the winter because of the harsh weather outdoors.
But if you think you may have SAD, pushing yourself to do physical activity is a good way to combat it, says psychologist Scott Bea, Psy.D.
“Moving your body will compete with that tendency to be sluggish, and can produce good brain chemistry,” Dr. Bea says.
2. Create social situations
During the wintertime, the cold and lack of regular social interaction can lead you to feel blue, too.
If this is you, Dr. Bea recommends that you try to push yourself to be more social and to connect with others. Often, once you make the effort, the social interaction can lift your spirits.
The key is to get your attention and thoughts away from yourself, he says.
“Creating a new social obligation or inviting people into our homes can motivate us because then there’s an obligation to entertain, or spruce up your house,” Dr. Bea says. “Anything that forces your hand toward activity to being engaged outside of self-awareness would be useful for people with SAD.”
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3. Use light therapy
Experts believe SAD is triggered by changes in our exposure to sunlight. Research has shown that light therapy, which is sometimes called phototherapy, can help people with SAD.
About 70 percent of people with SAD see improvement when exposed to a therapy light for about a half hour each day, Dr. Bea says.
Light therapy is administered by a device that contains white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen to block ultraviolet rays. The intensity of light should be 10,000 Lux. Many health professionals treat SAD with 10,000 Lux for 15 minutes to 30 minutes every morning.
“Light therapy is generally safe and well-tolerated, Dr. Bea says. “However, light therapy is not appropriate for some patients – those with conditions such as diabetes or retinopathies or who are taking certain medicines – because of the potential risk of damage to the retina.”
Dr. Bea also recommends eating a well-balanced diet, which includes sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.
“This will help you have more energy even though your body is craving those starchy foods and sweets,” he says.
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