seasonal affective disorder SAD

seasonal affective disorder SAD

It’s fitting that the acronym of Seasonal Affective Disorder is SAD. Those who suffer from SAD during the dark days of winter feel as bleak as the chilly landscape around them. But don’t lose hope during those frigid winter months: here are five ways to beat those “winter blues.”

It’s important to keep in mind that SAD is a real problem; you’re not going crazy or manufacturing a made-up illness. “Some say this is a serotonin issue and some say the holidays bring it on. Maybe it’s both or even a vitamin D issue,” says Jayne Gumpel, LCSW, P.C., a therapist with a private practice in New York City. Whatever the cause, know that you are suffering from a legitimate disorder, and tackle it accordingly. Tell yourself that your feelings of anxiety and depression are valid and can be treated. And you’re not alone. According to Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association), “SAD affects half a million people every winter between September and April, peaking in December, January, and February.” MHA also reports that three out of four sufferers are female.

Sufferers of SAD know the symptoms well. “For no reason you find yourself wanting to stay in bed longer, weary and reluctant to face your day; unhappy and triggered to tears at the simplest things that normally you would deflect or manage easily,” explains Gumpel. “Suddenly you feel as dark as the day.” But there’s a way to make your day a lot brighter—both literally and figuratively—in the form of a lightbox. A lightbox, like the Lightphoria ($59.99) is a device that mimics the kind of bright daylight that you’re exposed to during the spring and summer. Placing it in front of you for a recommended amount of time each day (check with your doctor to see what he or she suggests) can significantly reduce the misery you experience during the winter.

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A vacation to Hawaii or sunny California every winter would be great, but it’s not exactly practical for most of us. The winter sun may seem pale and ineffectual, but even in the coldest months it can function as nature’s lightbox. If you’ve got the winter blues, try bundling up and taking a daily daytime walk. “One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright artificial light,” reports Mental Health America. If you’re feeling anxious and depressed, it’s not always easy to get motivated to get out of bed and into the cold, but it’s worth it: walking is a low-impact exercise with tons of health benefits, so it’s win-win. To make your wintry walks more fun, ask a friend or family member to join you, or bring along the dog.

Talking to a professional who understands that the winter blues are a valid disorder can be enormously reassuring to SAD sufferers. “What I know is what I see with individuals who suffer from this disorder,” says Gumpell. “Their lives crash into the darkness and once they can name it and treat it, it makes all the difference.” If therapy doesn’t feel like an option—because of time or money restrictions—try confiding in a trusted friend. Explaining to a bestie that you tend to feel nervous and sad during the winter months will not only help you get your feelings off your chest, but given how common the winter blues are, your confidante may be able to relate by sharing her own experiences with SAD.

SAD varies from person to person; some may feel only mild symptoms of anxiety while others become severely depressed. Those suffering from the latter may want to use medicine in addition to the approaches outlined above. Some people receive a prescription for antidepressants like Prozac for just four months out of the year. Herbal remedies are also a possibility. Although you should check with your doctor first, pasionaria (passion flower) and Saint John’s Wort are known as natural antidepressants.

But whether they come in the form of an herbal remedy or a prescription from your doctor, don’t rely on antidepressants alone. Walking, talking, using light therapy, and knowing the facts about SAD can be used to tackle the disorder in tandem with a medicinal approach. Remember, as Jayne Gumpel explains, tell yourself that “[SAD] is something that is happening to me. It’s not my fault and I can treat it and feel like myself again!”