For some of you, the thought of shorter days, cooler nights, sweaters and snow sledding brings a smile to your face. For others, you may shudder and grimace that colder days are indeed upon us. If you dread the impending winter season so much that it affects your mood, you may suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder, or SAD, a real condition that affects between 2-10 percent of the population with women being affected more than men. SAD is most often caused by lack of sunlight.
Often, people can begin to feel “down” or depressed with several days of no sunlight.
The term “winter blues” is often used to describe SAD because sufferers report feeling not quite themselves when colder months are here. Genetics and brain chemicals can also be contributors to SAD.
Sunlight provides our bodies with necessary Vitamin D, which has been shown through research to improve mood and regulate brain chemistry. The expression “soak up the sun” has good meaning. Our brains benefit from exposure to just 10 minutes of sun.
Symptoms of sad include depressed mood, social withdrawal, hopelessness, changes in sleep or appetite, difficulty concentrating, irritability and lack of interest in regular activities.
A former patient of mine, “Jennie” was generally a happy, functional person.
When September approached each year, her appearance, demeanor and mood started to shift. She became increasingly negative about her life, found it hard to stay motivated and stopped exercising. It was apparent through my meetings with Jennie that she was suffering from SAD. We created a plan that would help her cope with SAD symptoms each year.
A plan of approach is critical when you recognize that you may be affected by SAD. Simply talking about it will usually not be as effective.
The good news is that SAD is easily treated. While some could assume that only therapy can help, there are other options that you can try to help overcome symptoms.
Let me give you some ideas that may be helpful.
Stock up on sun. If you are not overly light-sensitive, the early fall season is a fantastic time to be outside and build up your Vitamin D levels. Even five minutes a day of sunlight a day can help lessen depressive symptoms. The same is true with SAD. Before it gets cold, dark and gloomy, take advantage of the sunshine as much as possible.
Create a care package — for yourself. Fill a box or drawer with relaxing, soothing items. These can include candles, a favorite book or CD, positive affirmations or healthy snacks, such as nuts and dark chocolate. You will have an “emergency kit” that you can access during those cold winter months when you’re not feeling so great emotionally.
Avoid isolation. Try to make human contact at least once a day, either by phone, Skype or in person. E-mail or texting doesn’t count. The more you isolate, the harder it will be to feel connected to your world.
Consider a light box. Light boxes can be purchased online and allow a person to be exposed to bright light each day. These can be helpful alternatives to natural sunlight that can be absent for days at a time.
Short-term therapy. While some people shy away from seeing a therapist for fear that this means they are “crazy,” therapy can be a very healthy and supportive tool. Some SAD sufferers benefit from therapy just during the winter months.
Attend to basic needs. These include proper nutrition, a regular sleep cycle, and self-care (relaxation and stress management). Take a long shower, pet your dog, watch a funny movie or call a friend.
Power of positive thinking. Studies show that people who have more positive thoughts report a more balanced mood. Write positive affirmations on note cards and carry them with you or post in your home. Affirmations such as, “I can do this,” or, “I will be okay,” or, “This season will pass,” can help combat negative thought patterns.
As Deborah Day says, “Nourishing yourself in a way that helps you blossom in the direction you want to go is attainable, and you are worth the effort.”
Diane Bigler is a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Platte City with her family. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.