Seasonal Affective Disorder: Beating the Winter Blues
Here in the northern hemisphere the days are getting shorter and darker. Not only is that a fact, but many of us feel it viscerally – in body and mind. So what is there to do about it? Quite a lot – and that is good news for the millions of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder and the winter blues year after year. Based on over 30 years of researching the question – and dealing with it in myself and my patients – here are some simple suggestions:
- Recognize the problem. This may seem simpler than it often is. Early signs of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be subtle. Decreased energy, fatigue, wanting to sleep more, craving those candies and pastas, slacking off at work – all classical symptoms of SAD or its milder variant, the Winter Blues, can easily be attributed to many other causes. But put them all together – along with feelings of anxiety, sadness or dread – and the likely cause becomes obvious: our old friend (or foe), the Winter Blues or SAD has come to visit us once again. But catch it early, and you’re ahead of the game.
Remember, if you don’t diagnose it, you won’t treat it properly.
- Get more light. You can do this in several ways. Go for a morning walk on a bright winter day (it has been shown that morning is often the most effective time for you to get light). Bring more light into your home. Trim the hedges from around the windows and wipe the grime that has accumulated since last winter off the window panes. Make at least one room in your home the bright room to which you can retreat on a dark winter’s day. Put your bedside lamp on a timer, which turns the lamp on a half hour before you are due to wake up. Better still, get a dawn simulator (they make great holiday gifts), which you can program to turn the light on at your desired time.
- If these simple measures don’t work consider getting a light fixture specially geared towards helping people with SAD. Luckily there is a wide range of choices. Here are a few things to remember in choosing a suitable light box. Based on research in this area, the best-tested boxes have fluorescent light bulbs behind a screen that filters out UV light, and have an illuminated surface area of at least one square foot. Most people respond best to light treatment in the morning – the earlier the better. Like all active treatments, light therapy can have side effects including headaches and eye strain, irritability and insomnia (especially when used late at night).
- Get up early, keep active, and be sure to plan pleasant events for yourself. Evidence shows that questioning and confronting negative thoughts and doing things that lift your spirits (key elements of cognitive behavior therapy) really do help.
- This well known mood booster can work wonders, especially if you combine it with bright light – for example, by taking a brisk stroll in the morning or working out in front of a light fixture.
- Watch out for those carbs – especially high-impact carbs, by which I mean anything with pure sugars or white starches. Low-impact carbs, such as unprocessed oats or legumes (such as beans, lentils, and chick peas, are much better. So are almonds and walnuts. High protein foods are great for keeping your cravings down while meeting nutritional needs. I avoid processed bars that claim to be nutritious but contain synthetic supplements and lots of sugar in different guises. My favorite snack: a small packet of Trader Joe’s almonds plus a part-skim mozzarella stick. They don’t spoil readily and are perfect for putting in your coat pocket or bag.
- Whatever form of meditation you do, do it. It’s a great way to reduce excess stress, which is bad in general, and especially bad if you have SAD or the Winter Blues.
- Get educated about your condition. For more information on the subject, check out my book Winter Blues: All You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, Guilford 2013, or additional blog posts here on my website.
- There are limits to self-help. When should you consult a doctor? If your winter symptoms are impairing your functioning to the point that your personal or work life is being disrupted significantly, it makes sense to consult a professional. Don’t jeopardize important relationships or your job. Likewise, if you are despairing and feel like you cannot go on, that’s not a good time to go it alone. Find a caring and knowledgeable professional.
10 . Is there a role for medications? If winter symptoms reach the level described in point #9 above, the professional you consult may recommend medications. The medications most commonly used are the SSRI’s (Prozac, Zoloft, or Lexapro in their generic forms) and buproprion in its various preparations. Since these are all prescription medications, a physician will need to be involved.
Summertime: And the Living Aint Easy (summer sad)