Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs cyclically, usually in winter. Many of my clients who suffer from SAD find that as the fall equinox passes, they begin to have symptoms. SAD sufferers react not just to the cold, but also to the dark days of winter. By this time of year the days are appreciably shorter than they were just a month ago.
SAD affects 1-2% of the population, and as many as 20% of people experience some form of winter blues.
As you will see from the symptoms below, some people experience an increase of stress or anxiety plus changes in their physical state, so you may experience seasonal changes without clearly identifying them as depression.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Sleeping all the time, or difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite, carving carb-heavy foods
- Super tired, hard to do my daily routine
- Weight gain
- Sad, guilty, down on myself
- Avoiding people or activities I used to enjoy
- Feeling more stressed or tense
- Losing interest in sex and physical contact
- Other signs of mood changes including difficulty concentrating, using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, or unexplained aches and pains
- Suicidal thoughts or feelings
If you are having thoughts or feelings about suicide, please reach out immediately for help. Read Suicide Help, call 1-800-273-TALK in the U.S. or visit IASP or Suicide.org to find a helpline in your country.
For more details on symptoms of different types of SAD, and how SAD can affect people living with bipolar disorder, see this Mayo Clinic article.
Self Help for SAD
Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers can try both self help and working with health care providers to improve their mood, reduce symptoms and keep themselves happier and healthier through the winder months.
Sunlight: get as much natural sunlight as possible. Keep it fun and relaxing, and you can add in physical activity. So take a walk outdoors, or have your coffee or tea break outside even if you have to bundle up. Also pay attention to letting as much light as possible into your home or office. Open the curtains and sit near the windows. In addition to sunlight, you might think about all the ways you can get out in nature and get a little “Vitamin N” into your diet of experience.
Exercise: regular exercise is a great way to boost the brain chemicals that regulate mood and can really help seasonal depression and anxiety. In particular, you may want to find rhythmic exercise with a bilateral, back and forth motion: walking, running, swimming, dancing, martial arts, weight training. Anything with a whole body, rhythmic pattern will help regulate the body’s natural rhythms and bilateral movement stimulates the same brain function that EMDR does, allowing a subtle self-regulation to occur.
Music: exercise with music…and play music. Music helps the body self-regulate whether you are moving with it or not (but why not double the fun, and move). You can create a playlist, explore new musics and see how they affect your inner world, or make music yourself. If you know how to play an instrument, great, but even if you don’t you can sing, hum, chant, and drum—on your body, on the table top, or invest in an instrument that delights you. Check out this opinion piece on using music to help with seasonal affective disorder.
People: as hard as it can be to reach out when you are feeling depressed, it is exactly what you need to do. Think about people you enjoy spending time with and haven’t seen in a while, or reach out to someone you don’t know well, a friend or neighbor. It can be hard to reach out but it is important, and face to face is better than online if possible. You can also think about joining a support group to reduce isolation or meeting people in a class, meetup group, or volunteering.
Eat well: the brain is part of the body, and good nutrition helps you to feel your best. Nutrition advice is outside my scope of practice, however most of us know when we are not eating well and we have some ideas of what to improve. Eating well most of the time will help fuel the brain for a more even mood and better feelings. If you are not sure how you should be eating to support your mental health, there are doctors and nutritionists who can help, as well as some online resources. Set up an appointment today.
De-stress: take stock and see what is bothering you in your life, and see if you can move away from unhealthy situations, unsupportive relationships, and overwork. You can practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, progressive relaxation, the body scan…there are so many resources. When was the last time you had fun? Plan simple activities that bring you joy and pleasure, and if possible do them with others to add to the self-help benefits.
Professional Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Light Therapy for SAD
One of the great discoveries for SAD is how some people react well to light therapy or phototherapy. Daily exposure to light in a safe way can improve SAD symptoms for many sufferers. A doctor can prescribe the right timing or length, and you may want to start early in the fall so the effect can build as natural light wanes with the season. Light therapy is now delivered in two ways, with a light box that you sit in front of or a dawn simulator. A light box should be used in consultation with your doctor, since there can be eye or skin problems to monitor and they can also trigger hypomania or mania in people with bipolar disorder.
Psychotherapy for SAD
Therapy can help you address the habits of mind and thought that add, exacerbate or even cause SAD. Because SAD is a powerful combination of mind-body, we can get into a chicken/egg scenario: which came first, the body being out of joint seasonally then the low mood and upsetting thoughts, or the upsetting thoughts, low mood and then disregulated physical state?
Therapy can help you look at all the habits that are going into your depressive experience, and seasonal depressive disorder is no exception. Like other depressions, which can have a physical component and a mental/emotional component, SAD responds well to therapeutic approaches from many schools, in combination with self help, light therapy and medication in some configuration depending on your needs.
If you have an underlying depression and are already in treatment, then continue to work with the professional you are with. If you don’t suffer from depression outside of your seasonal bouts, then perhaps short-term work might be right for you. CBT is the main short-term modality that is recommended, but experiential therapy such as the Gestalt therapy I practice, solution focused short term therapy, or other therapies that work with the connection between thoughts, feelings and habits of experience, that look at what you are doing in the moment and help you get a handle on what you can do to help yourself would be ideal. You can read more about individual therapy by following the link.
Medication for SAD
Some people find that an antidepressant is helpful for SAD, and this is often the next resort if light therapy does not work, or in combination with other treatments.
There is Hope and Help for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Please reach out for help and support if you are suffering, if your symptoms are more severe or more severe than usual, or if you try self-help options and they do not work well enough. Remember, even SAD sufferers can take steps to enjoy the winter months as much as possible and eventually the light comes back and spring will be here.
If you are in NYC and want to work with me, please call 347-620-2181 or email to set up a phone consultation, or you can schedule through my client portal. Learn more about my practice and individual therapy here.