Do you find yourself struggling with those cold, dreary days of fall and winter? It’s normal to feel a little down if you live for the warm-weather months. But if you routinely feel sad for no reason, have trouble sleeping and spend most of your days on the couch eating comfort food and binge-watching your favorite shows, you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
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What is SAD?
SAD, also called seasonal depression, is a form of depression that is usually experienced during the late fall when there is less sunlight and the days are shorter and colder. Seasonal depression can also happen in the summer, but it’s much less common.
While millions of people live with SAD, women are more likely to experience it than men. SAD is also more commonly experienced in cloudy parts of the country or areas that are farther away from the equator.
Symptoms of SAD
You might just think that you’re in a funk and can shake it off. But with SAD, it can go much deeper. Symptoms may include:
- Feelings of sadness or a serious mood shift when the seasons change.
- Lack of energy.
- Cravings for carbohydrates.
- Feeling irritated, hopeless or worthless.
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities, including loss of sexual interest.
- Difficulty with sleep, either by sleeping too much or experiencing insomnia.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Symptoms of SAD tend to pop up later in the fall or early in the winter and they tend to subside during the warmer months.
How to fight seasonal depression
If you’re trying to loosen SAD’s grip naturally, psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, offers some helpful suggestions for managing it.
1. Try an exercise program
Most people spend less time outside and as a result, their levels of physical activity decrease. However, if you think you might be experiencing SAD, exercise could be a good way to combat it.
“Moving your body will compete with that tendency to be sluggish and can produce good brain chemistry,” says Dr. Bea.
Consider indoor activities that you’d enjoy. You might try yoga or running on a treadmill. If you’re feeling more adventurous and want to brave the elements, go skiing or snowshoeing to make the most of the cold weather.
2. Create social situations
The colder months tend to increase our urge to hunker down and stay home — which then results in much less social interaction. If this sounds like you, Dr. Bea recommends connecting with others regularly. Social interaction can help lift your spirits. It can also help you get out of your head.
“Creating a new social obligation can motivate us. Anything that makes you take part in activities that allow you to be engaged outside of your self-awareness is useful for people who are living with SAD.”
3. Use light therapy
Experts believe SAD is triggered by changes in our exposure to sunlight. A recent study showed that bright light therapy could be an effective treatment for SAD, but larger studies still need to be done regarding this option.
Light therapy is administered by a device that contains white fluorescent light tubes covered with a plastic screen that blocks ultraviolet rays. Light therapy boxes range in intensity, up to 10,000 lux of light. According to Dr. Bea, many health professionals recommend treating SAD by sitting in front of 10,000 lux light for 30 minutes every morning. While it’s generally safe and well-tolerated by most people, those with certain health conditions shouldn’t try it.
“Light therapy is not appropriate for those with conditions such as diabetes or people with retinal damage because it could make those conditions worse.”
Dr. Bea also recommends eating a well-balanced diet, which includes sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals.
“Healthy eating will help you have more energy even though your body might be craving those starchy foods and sweets.”
If the depression sticks around for more than two weeks, talk with your doctor. Medication or psychotherapy may also help.
When should you get seasonal depression help?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to be diagnosed with SAD, the following criteria have to be met:
- A person must have symptoms of major depression or exhibit symptoms of SAD.
- Episodes of depression must occur during specific seasons for at least two consecutive years. However, it’s possible to not experience SAD symptoms yearly.
- Symptoms have to be much more frequent than other episodes of depression experienced at other times of the year during a person’s lifetime.
If these statements apply to you, your healthcare provider or a mental health professional can develop a treatment plan to help you beat seasonal depression.