Fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with light, exercise, friends & more
Jan. 4, 2023
By Katie Minor
Can you believe it’s already January? The holidays have passed, the new year has begun, and we are well into winter.
Even though the days are finally getting longer again, the sun is still setting around 5 p.m. each night. By that time, millions of people are leaving work, kids are just getting home from school, and it seems like the day has already ended.
This time of year, it’s easy to start feeling as gloomy as the weather. But when these mood changes start to interfere with your daily life, it might be more than just a case of the blues.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is characterized by this sense of feeling “down,” and it usually starts in late fall or early winter before going away again in the summer.
It is sometimes known as the “winter blues.”
SAD isn’t all that different from normal depression. Its symptoms last about four to five months out of the whole year, but the symptoms are still pretty much the same.
Some major depression symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
Specific symptoms associated with SAD include:
- Oversleeping (hypersomnia)
- Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
People with SAD might not experience all of these symptoms, but if you relate to more than a few of these as we get further into winter, it could be a sign you’re dealing with SAD.
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes it, but people with SAD have reduced serotonin and increased melatonin levels, which is likely due to lack of sunlight and vitamin D.
SAD is actually quite common and may affect millions of Americans every year — and many don’t even know. It is more common in women than in men, and it occurs more often in areas that are further north. Someone in New York might be more likely to experience SAD than someone in Florida — and for those of us in West Virginia, winter can be harsh.
Seasonal affective disorder is no joke. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting help.
There’s no surefire way to prevent getting SAD this winter. If you’re prone to depression — it’s often genetic — the best thing to do is find therapy that works for you.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can help ease symptoms of depression. It also might be useful to seek medication that can help regulate the levels of serotonin that your brain is lacking when you have depression.
For SAD specifically, there is a type of treatment known as light therapy. The person sits in front of a very bright light box (10,000 lux) every day for about 30 to 45 minutes, usually first thing in the morning, from fall to spring. The light filters out potentially harmful UV light, so it’s safe for most people.
It sounds strange, but light therapy has been used since the 1980s to make up for the sunlight lost in winter months for those with SAD.
While you can’t always prevent the onset of seasonal affective disorder, there are a few things you can do to keep your body and mind a little healthier this winter.
Take vitamin D supplements. People with SAD often have a vitamin D deficiency because of the lack of sunlight in the winter.
Get outdoors as much as you can. I know it’s tempting to stay home and watch movies while the weather gets cold, but putting on a coat and taking a walk once a day can help make a difference.
Keep your diet in mind. We tend to load up on carbs in the fall and winter, but don’t forget the other important nutrients your body needs. Fruits and veggies are always a must.
Don’t go into hibernation! If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that social relationships are more important than we think. Keep in touch with your friends and family.
Seasonal affective disorder can affect anybody, and it can cause disruptions in day-to-day life. If you relate to any of these symptoms, you’re not alone. The sooner you seek treatment, the more likely you are to avoid a SAD winter.
Katie Minor is the public information office assistant at Monongalia County Health Department.