Seasonal Affective Disorder is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, especially those far from the equator. A further 10 to 20% will have a mild form of SAD.
SAD, commonly called the “winter blues,” is a serious condition that can negatively affect an individual’s daily life. While scientists are still seeking to understand SAD, there are tried and true methods that might make it better.
That’s why we’ve compiled 5 of the best coping methods for whenever you’re feeling SAD. Try them out and change the meaning of SAD from “Seasonal Affectation Disorder” to “Smiles All Day.”
What Is SAD?
SAD is a depression that forms around fall and continues through the winter months, finally dissipating in spring or summer. As such, it is often referred to as the winter blues.
It was first discovered and coined by Norman Rosenthal, a researcher at the National Institutes of Mental Health who was exploring the human brain’s reaction to minimal sun exposure. In 1984, he was researching what he assumed to be a rare disorder.
To his surprise, he found it was anything but.
After a Washington Post article covering the new findings asked readers to contact the researcher if they were experiencing symptoms, Rosenthal stated, “I thought we’d get maybe half a dozen and we could do something. We got 3,000 responses from all over the country.”
Three years later, SAD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual.
What Causes It?
To this day, scientists are unsure what causes SAD, but they do have some speculations.
One theory involves the brain’s ability to maintain serotonin levels; studies have indicated that people with SAD tend to have more serotonin transporters, which “suck up” the chemical in the brain.
Others believe an increase in melatonin is to blame. When darkness falls, our bodies naturally increase production of this hormone to make us sleepy. Therefore, when winter hits and the days become long and grey, it is hypothesized the synthesis of melatonin increases.
Finally, another perception is that people who experience SAD cannot produce appropriate amounts of vitamin D, which then affects serotonin levels.
The symptoms of seasonal depression parallel the ones expected in clinical or mild depression.
- Feelings of helplessness
- Lack of interest in activities
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Weight or appetite fluctuations
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent thoughts of suicide
How to Cope When You’re Feeling SAD
If you’re a victim of the long winter months, don’t despair. There are a number of treatments you can try for yourself or with the help of a professional. If you suffer from any other health conditions, be sure to speak to a doctor before beginning any treatments.
Further, if alternative treatments do not work or the problem persists and/or worsens, seek medical help.
1. Light Therapy
Because Seasonal Affective Disorder is so closely tied to light, light therapy is a common suggestion to get over the long, dark days.
A light therapy box may be your best choice. The box mimics outside light, making the chemicals in your brain react as they normally would in the sunny parts of the year.
A lightbox should have an exposure up to 10,000 lux of light and it should emit very little UV light.
Place the box about a foot away from your face. Do not look directly into the light.
Do this every morning for 20 to 60 minutes beginning in fall and into spring.
The idea is to trick your brain into thinking it’s still getting the light it needs.
Yes, that means hitting the gym or using that yoga mat you have lying around.
It might be very hard at first; after all, if you’re in the middle of a long winter, chances are you’re exhausted. But trust us: it works.
Exercise releases endorphins and those make you happy. Rosenthal himself suggests exercising in addition to using a light box. It will stave off any weight gain, increase your mood and get you into good habits.
3. Vitamin D
You probably guessed you’d see this suggestion, huh?
Since vitamin D increases the production of serotonin, it seems only logical it could dispel the negative effects of feeling SAD.
However, studies do have mixed results. While exposure to sunlight accounts for 90% of our vitamin D, some studies find no correlation between elevated moods and the vitamin intake. Others, however, show significant results.
If you use vitamin D, be sure to also utilize another treatment method.
Cognitive behavioral therapy aims to correct distorted thinking, usually by replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Eventually, in altering these automatic thoughts, behavior transforms.
Some research indicates this may be even more effective than light therapy.
in a study by the University of Vermont, 177 participants with SAD were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy. They showed better results and experienced fewer symptoms than those who had been utilizing light therapy.
Specific forms of cognitive behavioral therapy have been created to cater to those who suffer from SAD.
“By working through the thought process,” Arlene Karidis from The Baltimore Sun points out, “patients often begin to see differently, though it can take time — anywhere from four weeks to years, depending on whether the patient has other conditions, the severity of their symptoms and the frequency of therapy.”
5. A Vacation
Yes, a vacation. Do you have an uncle in Florida? Or perhaps a sister in California?
Save the money you would spend on doctors and medication to visit for a week or stay in a hotel somewhere sunny. The break will encourage your body and mind to return to normal.
Like many of the other treatments, however, this should be used with other coping measures, as well.
“Smiles All Day”
SAD doesn’t have to mean Seasonal Affection Disorder. Let’s start that cognitive therapy now and change the acronym to a whole new meaning.
Instead of feeling SAD, it’s time to Smile All Day.
Whether it’s a vacation or an hour with a light therapy box, there are ways to fight the winter blues. But these aren’t the only methods to improve your mood.
Check out our article on relieving stress and boosting your emotions; from socializing to better eating, there are a host of ways to learn how to Smile All Day long.