Many people love spring and summer because basking in the sunshine lifts their spirits and makes them happy. But come fall, when the lightness of the day departs earlier and the night lasts longer, depression seeps in for some people, seriously impacting their daily lives.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is the recurrence of depression during specific times each year—usually late fall through the wintertime. Or it could mean the worsening of symptoms of a preexisting depression.
Seasonal affective disorder should be taken seriously. Although not as long-lasting, SAD’s symptoms are the same as those of major depressive disorder (MDD). They may include:
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Pervasive sadness
- Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities
- Low energy and lack of motivation
- Change in eating habits
- Thoughts of despair and suicide
SAD Disrupts the Body Clock and Brain Chemistry
Seasonal affective disorder is related to the way the body and brain adjusts—or does not adjust—to the change of season when there is less light in the day and less time spent in the rays of the sun.
People often awake when it is still dark in the morning, and they come home from work with darkness looming in the skies. They are also less likely to spend time outdoors due to cold weather and snow. This causes changes in the body and the brain, including:
In patients with depression, there is typically a disruption in circadian rhythm and this is seen as one of the symptoms of SAD. There may be trouble falling or staying asleep.
Metabolism and hormone
Other systems in the body can get out of balance, and lead to physical changes or related behavior that adds to depression. For example, carbohydrate cravings increase and people eat more, which adds to depression and weight gain.
Less vitamin D
As a naturally occurring vitamin that comes from sun exposure, vitamin D helps fight depression. When it hits the skin, it turns cholesterol stores into vitamin A and this advantage is lessened in winter.
Brain chemistry changes
Depression is known to occur if the neurotransmitter serotonin is depleted or low. In SAD, there may be a significant change in serotonin in different seasons. Research has detected summer-to-winter differences in the levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) protein. One study showed that SERT activity was higher when nights grew longer and a lower activity of serotonin followed.
9 Ways to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Fortunately, there are several ways to treat SAD. “If symptoms of seasonal depression are disrupting your daily functioning, it can be helped with psychotherapy, light therapy or medication,” says Whitney Hawkins, LMFT. “Purchase a sun lamp and get as much time outdoors as possible.”
1. Let there be light.
A standard treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is light therapy. This requires a special light box placed a few feet away from you that exposes you to bright light while indoors. It is used to simulate outdoor light and many mental health practitioners believe the light impacts brain chemicals in a positive way.
2. Get ahead of symptoms.
A 30-minute exposure to bright light (natural sunlight or with a light box) in the morning through the winter season can be effective in treating SAD. Research shows it may have an antidepressant effect on people. It is recommended you start before symptoms appear or as soon as you notice any hint of depression setting in.
3. Extend the day.
Use the light box to help you feel the day is longer and brighter. One study showed that using lights to artificially extend the light of the day helps some patients maintain an antidepressant effect. Use the light in the morning and evening.
4. Try blue light.
Researchers have found that lower intensity and duration of exposure via blue-enriched light can also be effective. Some studies found it to be equally as effective as white light.
5. Get as much sun as possible.
Days become shorter in October, so that’s the time to go for walks and sit in the park. Try not to give up on the outdoors when the cold and dark seep in but supplement with light therapy.
6. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Talk therapy helps depression. In one study, a CBT intervention was employed to try to ameliorate and remit a current SAD episode and act to preempt a recurrence. All participants using just CBT came through without relapse and over 60% of those treated with light alone relapsed. CBT is considered an adjunct or alternative treatment, especially in preventing recurrence.
7. Supplement vitamin D.
Deficiency in vitamin D has been connected to poor mood so this vitamin is important for healing. You can get this vitamin in foods like fish and fortified dairy products, but some doctors and studies recommend other methods, such as over-the-counter supplements in capsule, drop and wafer form.
Because SAD can manifest as major depressive disorder (MDD), antidepressants may be prescribed. If you’ve already been diagnosed with MDD, it’s imperative that current medicine and doses be evaluated to address the symptoms.
9. Laugh more.
The winter months can feel very long, so fill your life with opportunities to laugh and have fun. Go to the movies, watch sitcoms or rent a comedy show. Tell jokes. Have fun. Remember, the winter solstice is the longest day of the year and the ancients did rituals because they feared the sun would never return. But you have proof: the sun will come out again! So try to make the dark days as light as possible.
Make sure you work with a professional who can counsel you on the correct approach for you personally and can recommend the best light box. There are many on the market so you want a recommendation.