It’s that time of year again: The days are shorter, sunlight is scarce, and the bitter cold weather drives us indoors. For some people, this is an excellent time to hunker down and binge-watch favorite TV shows, but for others, it can be a season that leads to low energy, agitated or depressed mood, overeating, social withdrawal, difficulty concentrating, and changes in sleep patterns.
If you notice a majority of these symptoms that start in the late fall and last through the spring, then you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is classified as a type of depression that occurs in a seasonal pattern and affects as many as 25 percent of people in the United States, especially those in northern parts of the country.
While the specific cause of SAD is unknown, it is typically linked to factors such as serotonin levels, melatonin levels, family history, and your personal circadian rhythm. Although some of these you cannot change, there are still many things you can do in order to beat the winter blues. We have put together five strategies to combat SAD.
One of the main treatments for SAD is the use of light therapy. The purpose of light therapy is to make up for the loss of natural sunlight during the winter months through specialized light boxes. These light boxes utilize 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light, which is about 20 times stronger than normal inside lighting, to mimic the sun and trick the brain into thinking it is outside. Light therapy is typically advised for 20-60 minutes per day and produces best results when used in the morning hours.
Even on cold and cloudy days, stepping outside and getting exposure to natural sunlight greatly increases serotonin levels in your brain, giving you a boost of the mood-lifting chemical. Recent studies have also found that walking through nature can reduce symptoms of depression, another great reason to bundle up and get outside.
Another thing to try to help fight SAD is exercise. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, boosts your brain’s levels of serotonin and keeps them elevated for hours following a workout. Exercise is also an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as feel good about yourself.
Medications called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are typically used to treat SAD. These work by altering the way serotonin is absorbed in the brain, increasing how much serotonin is available. As with any medication, there are potential side effects with SSRIs, so it is vital you talk to your doctor about risks and benefits.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is effective for SAD. Traditional CBT provides strategies to help you identify negative thought patterns and gives you techniques to cope with anxiety and depression. Many people see positive benefits from a combination of talk therapy and medication.
The winter months can be difficult for many people, but particularly for those suffering from SAD. While you can’t change the seasons, you can change how they affect you and ultimately beat the winter blues.
Laura Shiff, who contributed this article, is a freelance copywriter from the Twin Cities who specializes in writing web content for software, tech, and medical companies. In her spare time she can be found reading, chasing her toddler, or searching for the best cheese curds in town.
Think you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder? Our therapists at Canvas Health can help. Our clinics are conveniently located throughout the Twin Cities. To make an appointment today in Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, North Branch, Oakdale, or Stillwater, call (651) 777-5222 For appointments in Coon Rapids or Richfield, call (612) 676-1604.