The dark days of winter are here. With them come long nights, gusts of cold, and general dreariness. Is it no wonder that malaise is clouding our days and our ennui is deepening with each passing week? Or perhaps that’s simply Seasonal Affective Disorder taking its hold.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it’s aptly known, is characterized by depression that is brought upon by the seasonal changes of the seasons, especially fall and winter, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
This may sound like a made-up thing that serves as an excuse to sleep in later while you shut out the world and have your roommate bring you soup, but according to the American Psychiatry Association (APA) it’s a very real thing. Approximately 5 percent of adults in the US experience SAD, and it can last for 40 percent of the year.
APA explains, “As seasons change, people experience a shift in their biological internal clock or circadian rhythm that can cause them to be out of step with their daily schedule. SAD is more common in people living far from the equator where there are fewer daylight hours in the winter.” It’s also worth noting that SAD is more common in women than men. Thanks but no thanks, biology.
SAD symptoms can vary from the very mild to severe and involve feelings of sadness, loss of energy, changes in appetite, trouble concentrating, and other characteristics that mirror major depression. Experts recommend that a proper diagnosis is given by a medical professional before you set out to cure your own seasonal gloom, but the good news is there’s a whole spate of treatment options out there for those of us with the winter blues.
Here a few ways to get you feeling (mostly) like your best summer self again.
Try light therapy (but skip the tanning booth)
I’ll never forget when my own mean blues took hold of me as a teenager during a particularly relentless rainy winter. My mom was mystified by my nonstop crying spells and decided to take me to a tanning booth (you know, the UV-ray kind that we all know gives you skin cancer) in hopes that it would cure me of my mopey tear-ridden angst. Turns out tanning booths are actually not recommended by medical experts as an antidote to seasonal melancholy, but my caring mom was onto something: Exposure to artificial light, a.k.a light therapy, is often recommended to those with SAD.
How does light therapy work? The treatment involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that gives off super bright light without bad-for-you UV rays. Light therapy generally requires 20 minutes or more a day of basking in the bulb, and it’s recommended that the light-filled sessions take place first thing in the morning. The APA states that, “Most people see some improvements from light therapy within one or two weeks of beginning treatment.”
Consider talk therapy (i.e. learning to cope with seasonal shifts)
Although light therapy has been proven to help people dealing with SAD, one of the challenges of the condition is that it reoccurs every season (just like your zany uncle’s awful Thanksgiving jokes). Certain forms of talk therapy, specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) have helped patients break their SAD cycle. For those that are unfamiliar with CBT, the way that it works is that a trained counselor helps identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors in a relatively short series of meetings with a patient.
Dr. Michael Young, the past president of the Society for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms, told the New York Times, “On the psychological side, part of [CBT] teaches people skills to help themselves … Once people learn those, they don’t tend to forget them. It doesn’t require putting aside half an hour [to sit in front of a light lamp] or continuous meds, which only work if you take them.”
He also emphasized that it’s key to work with a CBT-trained therapist who has experience in SAD treatment. In other words, venting to your BFF won’t totally cure your case of the holiday mopes.
Get more exercise, and other behavioral stuff you can do
Along with light therapy and talk therapy small changes in your daily habits can also make a big-time difference for SAD sufferers. Experts recommend waking up early when it’s light out and sleeping when it’s dark, getting your endorphins going with exercise, and staying active and social.
Therapist James Ullwritch writes in Psychology Today, “The vicious cycle of depression lies in the danger of being in too low a mood to go out and socialize, thus reinforcing the feeling of isolation. Force yourself to go out and see friends. They are likely suffering some of the same SAD symptoms you are, and can offer great moral support.” I’ll raise a mug of hot cocoa to that.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visitor this site for access to resources. For urgent international resources, this list is a good place to start.