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During the cold, dark winter months, getting out of bed can feel impossible. When the sun rises at 8 a.m. and sets at 4 p.m., you might not see daylight for weeks straight, which is enough to make anyone feel ~blah~. But for some, this isn’t just a temporary mood shift; they actually suffer from seasonal affective disorder (or SAD).
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder or SAD is a subset of depression, meaning that people will suffer many of the same symptoms as those diagnosed with clinical depression. “What makes it different is that it’s particularly more severe in those winter months,” says Neeraj Gandotra, M.D., chief medical officer at Delphi Behavioral Health Group.
Seasonal affective disorder is caused by a lack of sunlight as the days become shorter, and the cold weather that keeps people inside. “The body makes natural chemicals that fight off depression, such as vitamin D, and some of those are generated through exercise and direct exposure to sunlight,” explains Dr. Gandotra. “It has also been shown that people with SAD have increased melatonin in their body (a chemical that makes us sleepy). This means that these people feel tired or fatigued more often.” (Related: How to Boost Your Mood on Blue Monday)
According to a 2008 study published on Psychiatry MMC, about 6 percent of the U.S. population suffers from this disorder, while 14 percent suffer from a less severe mood shift known as the “winter blues.” Women between the ages of 14 and 30 are also more susceptible to having seasonal affective disorder. And where you live has a lot to do with it too: “Geographically, it’s been shown that the incidence of SAD goes up the further north you get from the equator,” says Dr. Gandotra. Makes sense.
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder looks just like depression, says Elizabeth Cobb, L.C.S.W., A.C.T., lead therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. A person with seasonal affective disorder may also:
“For individuals with SAD, it’s more than just ‘the blues’—you’re experiencing clinical depression that has a recurring seasonal pattern. This means that in order to be diagnosed, you must meet the full criteria for major depressive disorder, and your depressive episodes occur during specific seasons,” Cobb explains. To be formally diagnosed with SAD, you need to see a pattern of depression during this time of year for a couple of years. (Related: Just Because You’re Depressed Doesn’t Mean You Have Seasonal Affective Disorder)
Seasonal affective disorder doesn’t only happen during the winter, though. There’s such a thing as reverse seasonal affective disorder, which affects people during the spring and summer months. With the reverse season come reverse symptoms too: Instead of slowing down (as is common with winter-onset SAD), someone with reverse SAD could be full of energy but in an agitated way. People with summer SAD may also feel more at peace indoors, where it’s darker and cooler. (There’s also another symptom of depression that no one talks about.)
How do you treat seasonal affective disorder?
If you suspect that you may be suffering from SAD, it’s best to visit a mental health specialist. They’ll be able to diagnose you properly and start a course of treatment. (If you think one of your loved ones is suffering, read up on these five ways to support a loved one struggling with depression.)
The first course of treatment is usually to go outside and spend more time in the little sunlight—even if it’s just a short period of time during short winter days. Exercising also helps battle symptoms of SAD. “Cortisol is our stress hormone and it tends to increase during depressive episodes,” explains Dr. Gandotra. “You can beat this with exercise and pushing yourself to be active.” Along with exercising and socializing, improving your eating habits and taking vitamin D supplements should help ease your SAD symptoms. It can also help to learn how to manage stress properly, says Dr. Cobb. (These weighted blankets can help you chill out.)
Should you try light therapy for seasonal affective disorder?
Light therapy is the next step. There are two types of light therapy lamps: dawn-initiation lamps and light boxes. “Light therapy lamps help mimic natural sunlight,” explains Dr. Gandotra. The first one functions as an alarm clock. Depending on what you set the timer for, it will start to light up the room just like a sunrise. This could help you wake up in a better mood and feel more energized to start your day—even when it’s still dark outside. This is a less intensive treatment compared to light therapy boxes or lamps.
You set up light therapy lamps near your desk, TV, or reading nook, and bask in the faux sunlight for 20 to 30 minutes every day (preferably within the first hour of waking up). You can’t just sit in front of any bright light. An appropriate light therapy lamp should give off 10,000 lux and you should never look directly into it, though it should be pointed at you. “The light will increase your productivity and decrease the melatonin, which is making you feel sleepy or fatigued,” explains Dr. Gandotra. (Try one of these top-rated light therapy lamps you can get right on Amazon.)
Technically, you can benefit from light therapy even if you don’t have SAD—the lamps are also used to treat jet lag, help people adjust to nighttime work schedules, or treat sleep disorders. But it’s still best to talk to your doctor or mental health provider before trying light therapy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Light therapy works for many people, and they usually see results within one to four weeks,” says Daniel Lia, M.D., who’s based in New York City. “If that doesn’t work, other easy options include improving your sleep hygiene—meaning, avoid caffeine before bedtime and limit naps to 30 minutes a day.” He also notes that if you are doing absolutely everything to beat SAD but it is not working, clinical depression could be the cause. “This is why it’s particularly important to speak with your doctor if depressive symptoms persist despite attempts at self-treatment,” he says. (Did you know there are four different types of depression?)